Harvard scientists have succeeded in creating the rarest and potentially one of the most valuable materials on the planet – atomic metallic hydrogen.
To create it, researchers squeezed a tiny hydrogen sample at 495 gigapascal, or more than 71.7 million pounds-per-square inch – greater than the pressure at the centre of the Earth.
At those extreme pressures, solid molecular hydrogen breaks down and the tightly bound molecules dissociate to transform into atomic hydrogen, which is a metal.
While the research offers an important new window into understanding the general properties of hydrogen, it also offers tantalising hints at potentially revolutionary new materials.
The material could also provide major improvements in energy production and storage – because superconductors have zero resistance energy could be stored by maintaining currents in superconducting coils, and then be used when needed.
Though it has the potential to transform life on Earth, metallic hydrogen could also play a key role in helping humans explore the far reaches of space, as the most powerful rocket propellant yet discovered.
To create the new material, scientists turned to one of the hardest materials on Earth – diamond. Rather than natural diamond, they used two small pieces of carefully polished synthetic diamond which were then treated to make them even tougher and then mounted opposite each other in a device known as a diamond anvil cell.