Okay, file this under “Far out science news that may or may not be true and even if it is, so what?” Two researchers at Harvard University report that they have successfully created metallic hydrogen in laboratory conditions. Why is that a big deal? Well, first of all, it is one of those things that physicists always talk about among themselves as being theoretically possible. They just have never been able to do it.

metallic hydrogen

Microscope images showing how hydrogen evolves from liquid hydrogen (200 GPa pressure), into “black” hydrogen and finally into metallic hydrogen at about 495 GPa pressure. Photo credit: Harvard University

Second, if there is such a thing as metallic hydrogen, it will upend science and technology in fundamental ways. It will be a room temperature superconductor, which means it could transform electronics. Anything and everything having to do with electricity — electric motors, maglev systems, and computers — would be orders of magnitude faster.

Supercomputers that are 10 times faster than anything available today would be possible. The Hyperloop would move a big step closer to reality with its ability to move people and things around the world faster than anyone ever thought possible. Metallic hydrogen could also be an ultra-dense rocket fuel, powering trips to Mars and other planets in ways never before imagined. The electrical grid would become many times more efficient, maximizing the power that can be created and distributed from renewable energy sources.

There’s only one problem. To make metallic hydrogen requires tremendous pressures and no one is sure what will happen when that pressure is removed. Will there be a bit of actual metal that can be touched and worked with or will the hydrogen just revert to its gaseous state? No one knows, least of all the scientists who conducted the experiment. Suffice it to say the announcement has met with significant skepticism from the scientific community.

Harvard professor Isaac Silvera and postdoctoral fellow Ranga Dias say they created metallic hydrogen by placing it under previously unimaginable pressure — 495 gigapascal or more than 71.7 million pounds per square inch. Let’s put that into perspective. The pressure at the center of the earth is a mere 365 gigapascal. It is 4.9 million times the pressure at the Earth’s surface and equivalent to the pressure of the water over your head if you had the misfortune to be standing at the bottom of an ocean that is 49,150 kilometers deep.

“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.” He goes on to say, “One prediction that’s very important is metallic hydrogen is predicted to be meta-stable. 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.” Maybe. That’s the part that hasn’t been proven yet.

The researchers are enthusiastic about the potential for metallic hydrogen. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen,” Silvera explains. “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.” In theory, metallic hydrogen would have more than 4 times the power of the most powerful rocket fuel known to science. “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.”

“Junk science,” says physicist Eugen Gregoryantz at the University of Edinburgh according to a report in Norwegian news source Side 3. He thinks the experiment has several flaws. Others are taking a wait and see attitude. “If this is true, then it will be fantastic. This is something we’ve been working towards for decades,” says Carnegie Mellon researcher Reinhard Boehler.  In fact, the existence of metallic hydrogen was originally postulated more than 100 years ago.

Is there anything to this story other than a topic of conversation at the next International Congress of Nerds? Maybe not, but as the head of the US Patent Office famously declared on New Year’s Eve, 1899, “Everything that can be invented has now been invented.” Minds are like parachutes. They only work when they are open. This may not be anything that affects your life or mine today or even in the foreseeable future but that doesn’t mean it won’t affect the lives of future generations.

Source: Harvard University  Photo credits: YouTube

Hat Tip to Leif Hansen of Bergen, Norway who sends me weird stuff like this from time to time!