Metallic hydrogen is one of the holy grails of modern science. It would essentially be a magic material, creating everything from impossibly fast computers to hovering cars (themselves powered by hydrogen) to batteries that never need charging. It was also supposed to be impossible, as it would require pressures you can’t even find at the center of the Earth. But, now, amazingly, two Harvard scientists have reportedly pulled it off.
It literally took dropping liquid hydrogen to almost absolute zero and crushing it between two diamonds at thousands of times the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere, but… here we are. They’ve created metallic hydrogen. The next step is to ease the pressure and see if the theory that once made metal, hydrogen stays that way at “room temperature” holds.
If it does, then, not to oversell it or anything, but basically the entire course of human history has been irrevocably shifted. Metallic hydrogen is, in theory, a room-temperature superconductor. In a normal conductor, like a copper wire, there’s resistance — think of it like pouring chocolate syrup through a sieve. No matter how fine the sieve, or how slick the wires, some of that syrup is going to stay behind.
Superconductors, on the other hand, have no resistance. If you put electricity into a closed loop of superconducting wire, then the electricity stays there, running in a circle, waiting for you to take it out. We already use superconductors in an enormous number of places: MRI machines, maglev trains, high-grade electrical motors, and in scientific work like the Large Hadron Collider. The problem is that superconductors need to be cooled down to a very low temperature, usually -297° F, in order to work, and getting something that cold is an expensive proposition.
If a superconductor could work at normal temperatures, that would make them relatively cheap to use. Superconducting batteries could be connected to solar and wind farms, charged, and stored to use in rainy or calm days. Computers would become faster immediately. Electric motors would become even more power efficient and stronger than they already are. Even something as simple as your humble electrical transformer could be made vastly more efficient with room-temperature superconductors, meaning we’d get more out of every lump of coal and drop of oil we burned. Oh, and hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, so the raw materials are literally in our atmosphere.
Of course, metallic hydrogen might not be a room-temperature superconductor. This is literally material that has never existed before. It might simply dissolve. It might blow up. It might just turn back into plain old hydrogen. And this would mean a complete rewrite of the theory of physics. And even if it does work, you won’t see metallic hydrogen in your laptop tomorrow; this isn’t yet an industrial process. But if the theory holds, the world has just take an enormous step into the future we’ve always dreamed of.
(via The Independent)