Economic Progress

How to turn hydrogen into metal: Crush it with diamonds

A composite of separate exposures taken in 2003 to 2012 with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3 of the evolving universe is shown in this handout photo provided by NASA, June 3, 2014.  Researchers say the image, from a new study called the Ultraviolet Coverage of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, provides the missing link in star formation. Made from 841 orbits of telescope viewing time, it contains approximately 10, 000 galaxies, extending back in time to within a few hundred million years of the big bang, according to NASA.  REUTERS/HUDF/NASA/Handout via Reuters   (OUTERSPACE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTR3S21L

Hydrogen makes galaxies shine. Image: REUTERS/HUDF/NASA

Katherine Ellen Foley
Health and Science Reporter, Quartz
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Economic Progress?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Economic Progress is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Economic Progress

This is a story of a gas acting in a way it shouldn’t.

For the first time, physicists from Harvard University turned hydrogen into metal. It proves a concept that was first predicted over 80 years ago by physicists who won the Nobel prize for their work.

Hydrogen, the tiniest element on the periodic table with just one proton and one electron per atom, is a gas at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressure. Usually, hydrogen atom will find another and form a stable molecule. These molecules like to quickly bounce around and take up a lot of space—which is what makes them a gas. (It’s actually rare to find hydrogen on its own in our atmosphere; because it weighs so little Earth’s gravity doesn’t hold it down well.)

But it’s possible to change the state of any element by speeding up or slowing down their molecules, or by giving them more or less room to bounce around. The lower the temperature, the slower molecules move. In this case, the researchers slowed these molecules way down to the point where they were barely moving by cooling them to 5.5 Kelvins (-267.65 °C). At that point, the hydrogen molecules arrange themselves in a lattice structure. Then, they squashed the molecules together to 495 gigapascals, which is nearly 5 million times the pressure we feel at sea level.

When super-cold hydrogen molecules get really close together, something strange happens. “Eventually [the molecules] get so close that two atoms that are in a molecule can’t distinguish whether they should be in that molecule or the adjacent one,” says Isaac Silvera, the lead author of the paper published (paywall) Jan. 26 in the journal Science. Instead of having separate molecules in the lattice, the atoms form a tightly packed mass that all share their electrons—just like a metal.

The research team tested the hydrogen’s metallic properties by shining a light on the sample and measuring how reflective it was. Although they can’t tell if the cold, condensed hydrogen was a liquid or solid, low-energy laser beams bounced back like the scientists would expect them to if the surface was a metal.

To make the metallic hydrogen, Silvera and his colleague, Ranga Dias, used an apparatus called a diamond anvil cell, which, as its name suggests, uses diamonds to apply pressure to chemical samples. “Diamonds are the hardest material we know,” says Silvera. They can withstand a lot of pressure, and are transparent to light and X-rays, which makes the smooshed sample inside the anvil cell easier to study. In this case, they used synthetic diamonds, which have no impurities. They were also coated with a thin layer of aluminum oxide to prevent the hydrogen molecules from seeping into the gemstones.

Silvera thinks that because of the way molecules rearrange themselves in metallic hydrogen, there’s a possibility that when warmed up again it could maintain its structure and be a superconductor. Metals like copper found in wires can conduct electricity, but some of the energy is lost to heat (think about how a lightbulb with filament is hot to the touch). Superconductors can transport electricity without losing any energy, but have only existed at very low temperatures so far, making them impractical for most uses, since keeping things that cold requires lots of energy. In the near future, Silvera plans to conduct research to figure out if, in fact, metallic hydrogen is a room-temperature superconductor.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Economic ProgressFourth Industrial Revolution
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Africa's debt crisis needs a bold new approach. Here's what countries can do

Danny Bradlow

February 28, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum