Harvard scientists create ‘Metallic Hydrogen’ which could be a super conductor of the future

Metallic hydrogen is a kind of degenerate matter, a phase of hydrogen in which it behaves like an electrical conductor. This phase was predicted in 1935 on theoretical grounds by Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington.

At high pressure and temperatures, metallic hydrogen might exist as a liquid rather than a solid, and researchers think it is present in large amounts in the gravitationally compressed interiors of Jupiter, Saturn, and in some extrasolar planets

Atomic metallic hydrogen, one of the rarest and most valuable materials on Earth, was created by Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences, Isaac Silvera, and post-doctoral fellow, Ranga Dias. The material has an extensive range of applications, including being a room-temperature superconductor.

The two created it by squeezing a small hydrogen sample at 495 gigapascals, approximately more than 71.7 million pounds-per-square-inch, a figure greater than the pressure at the center of the Earth. At such extreme pressures, solid molecular hydrogen breaks down and the bound molecules disconnect to transform into atomic hydrogen, also known as metal.

Predictions suggest that metallic hydrogen could be a superconductor at room temperatures, which would be revolutionary. About 15% of energy is lost to intemperance during transmission, but that could change by making wires from this material and using them in the electrical grid.

Additionally, a room-temperature superconductor has the potential to significantly improve our transportation system, allowing magnetic levitation of high-speed trains, making electric cars more efficient, and improving performance on several electronics.

Because superconductors have zero resistance, energy can be stored by retaining currents in superconducting coils and then be used when necessary. And while it has the potential to transform life on Earth, it could also play a significant role in discovering the most powerful rocket propellant yet.

 

Nearly a century after it was theorized, Harvard scientists report they have succeeded in creating the rarest material on the planet, which could eventually develop into one of its most valuable.

Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Isaac Silvera and postdoctoral fellow Ranga Dias have long sought the material, called atomic metallic hydrogen. In addition to helping scientists answer some fundamental questions about the nature of matter, the material is theorized to have a wide range of applications, including as a room-temperature superconductor. Their research is described in a paper published today in Science.

“This is the Holy Grail of high-pressure physics,” Silvera said of the quest to find the material. “It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.”

In their experiments, Silvera and Dias squeezed a tiny hydrogen sample at 495 gigapascal (GPa), or more than 71.7 million pounds per square inch, which is greater than the pressure at the center of the Earth. At such extreme pressures, Silvera explained, solid molecular hydrogen, which consists of molecules on the lattice sites of the solid, breaks down, and the tightly bound molecules dissociate to transforms into atomic hydrogen, which is a metal.

While the work creates an important window into understanding the general properties of hydrogen, it also offers tantalizing hints at potentially revolutionary new materials.

“One prediction that’s very important is metallic hydrogen is predicted to be meta-stable,” Silvera said. “That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remain diamonds when that pressure and heat are removed.”

Understanding whether the material is stable is important, Silvera said, because predictions suggest metallic hydrogen could act as a superconductor at room temperatures.

“As much as 15 percent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission,” he said, “so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story.”

A room temperature superconductor, Dias said, could change our transportation system, making magnetic levitation of high-speed trains possible, as well as making electric cars more efficient and improving the performance of many electronic devices. The material could also provide major improvements in energy production and storage. Because superconductors have zero resistance, superconducting coils could be used to store excess energy, which could then be used whenever it is needed.

Metallic hydrogen could also play a key role in helping humans explore the far reaches of space, as a more powerful rocket propellant.

Microscopic images of the stages in the creation of atomic molecular hydrogen: Transparent molecular hydrogen (left) under about 200 gigapascals (GPa) of pressure, which becomes black molecular hydrogen, and finally reflective atomic metallic hydrogen at 495 GPa. Courtesy of Isaac Silvera
Microscopic images of the stages in the creation of atomic molecular hydrogen: Transparent molecular hydrogen (left) at about 200 GPa, which is converted into black molecular hydrogen, and finally reflective atomic metallic hydrogen at 495 GPa. Courtesy of Isaac Silvera

“It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen,” Silvera explained. “And if you convert it back to molecular hydrogen, all that energy is released, so that would make it the most powerful rocket propellant known to man, and could revolutionize rocketry.”

The most powerful fuels in use today are characterized by a “specific impulse” (a measure, in seconds, of how fast a propellant is fired from the back of a rocket) of 450 seconds. The specific impulse for metallic hydrogen, by comparison, is theorized to be 1,700 seconds.

“That would easily allow you to explore the outer planets,” Silvera said. “We would be able to put rockets into orbit with only one stage, versus two, and could send up larger payloads, so it could be very important.”

In their experiments, Silvera and Dias turned to one of the hardest materials on Earth, diamond. But rather than natural diamond, Silvera and Dias used two small pieces of carefully polished synthetic diamond and treated them to make them even tougher. Then they mounted them opposite each other in a device known as a diamond anvil cell.

“Diamonds are polished with diamond powder, and that can gouge out carbon from the surface,” Silvera said. “When we looked at the diamond using atomic force microscopy, we found defects, which could cause it to weaken and break.”

The solution, he said, was to use a reactive ion etching process to shave a tiny layer — just five microns thick, or about a tenth the thickness of a human hair — from the diamond’s surface. The diamond was then coated with a thin layer of alumina to prevent the hydrogen from diffusing into the crystal structure and embrittling it.

After more than four decades of work on metallic hydrogen, and nearly a century after it was first theorized, it was thrilling to see the results, Silvera said.

“It was really exciting,” he said. “Ranga was running the experiment, and we thought we might get there, but when he called me and said, ‘The sample is shining,’ I went running down there, and it was metallic hydrogen.”

“I immediately said we have to make the measurements to confirm it, so we rearranged the lab … and that’s what we did.”

Credit : Harvard.edu

 

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