Everyone knows hydrogen is a gas, the simplest one there is. But how do you turn hydrogen into a metal while still keeping it hydrogen? The magic of chemistry. A pair of chemists in Germany claim to have doen this feat, though some remain skeptical.
In the late 19th century, chemists pointed out that hydrogen, topping the column of alkali metals in the periodic table, ought to form a metal itself. Physicists Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington predicted in 1935 that hydrogen should become a metallic solid at very high pressures - around 25GPa - but experiments later performed at these pressures showed no trace of a metal transition. More recent experiments, reaching pressures above 100GPa and temperatures approaching absolute zero, have offered hints of a metal transition, but generally results have been inconclusive.
The challenge of metallic hydrogen is alluring, partly because it has the potential for some exciting applications. Some believe studies of the material could lead to a room temperature superconductor, which would enable lossless power transmission. And if it is shown to be metastable, metallic hydrogen - being far denser than normal hydrogen - might make an efficient rocket fuel.
Mikhail Eremets and Ivan Troyan of the Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz now believe they are the first to offer conclusive evidence for metallic hydrogen. They condensed hydrogen in the hole of an alumina-epoxy gasket, which sat inside a diamond anvil cell. They could measure light transmission with a laser directed through the diamond and into the gasket’s hole, and resistance via electrodes on the diamond surfaces.
At room temperature and 220GPa, the researchers found that the hydrogen appeared to become opaque and electrically conductive. Then, lowering the temperature to 30K at pressures above 260GPa, they found that the resistance increased by 20 per cent before levelling off. ‘We found that [hydrogen] conducts to the lowest measured temperatures of 30K, and the resistance is nearly temperature independent, as [it] should be for metals,’ say Eremets and Troyan.
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