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Scientific breakthrough lost? Unique metallic hydrogen sample disappears

Harvard's seal sits atop a gate to the athletic fields at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts Sept. 21, 2009. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Scientists say that the world’s only sample of metallic hydrogen, which was touted as potentially revolutionizing technology, has disappeared.

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Last month physicists at Harvard University achieved what they described as “the holy grail of high-pressure physics,” when they created the first metallic hydrogen material.

However, Science Alert reports that the sample has disappeared, much to the dismay of experts. The sample was stored at temperatures around -316 degrees Fahrenheit, the report said, noting that the metallic hydrogen was kept at high pressure between two diamonds in a vice-like device.

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Isaac Silvera, Harvard’s Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences, who led the research, told Fox News that scientists were preparing to transport the sample to Argonne National Laboratory to determine its structure by X-ray analysis. "Before transporting we decided to use our apparatus and remeasure the pressure to see if it had changed," he explained, via email, adding that a very low power laser beam was shone onto the sample through the diamonds. "We heard a noise and the diamonds had catastrophically failed."

When the scientists opened the diamond anvil cell they discovered that one diamond was badly cracked and the other was pulverized into a fine powder. "The gasket confining the sample of metallic hydrogen was damaged and we could not find any residual of the sample (which was very small, about 10 microns in diameter)," explained Silvera. "We did not determine if it is metastable; it might have survived the shock or it might have transformed to molecular hydrogen." 

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Metastability refers to the “excited” state of an atom, nucleus or other system. In the case of the material created by Harvard, this means that the metal hydrogen would remain metallic, even if the pressure is taken off.

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The professor told Fox News that researchers are preparing another experimental run to see if they can replicate the high pressures from the first experiment and make metallic hydrogen again.

In a video posted to YouTube last month Harvard Postdoctoral Fellow Ranga Dias described how the vice-like device works. “We load the sample as a liquid state, but as soon as we pressurize it, the molecules get closer together and become a solid, and then we squeeze the solid,” he explained. “Even though this device looks very small, we can generate pressure more than the center of Earth.”

Silvera also discussed the ways that metallic hydrogen could impact technology in the video, with potential uses ranging from highly efficient electrical wiring to magnets. “You could make magnets that are used in MRIs, for example, that could work at room temperatures,” he said. “Right now the magnets have to be cooled with liquid helium.”

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NASA supports Harvard’s research into the breakthrough material. Silvera explained that if the metallic hydrogen is in a “metastable” state and converted to molecular hydrogen, it releases a massive amount of energy. “It would revolutionize rocketry,” he said.

Scientists had been attempting to make metallic hydrogen for more than 80 years, according to Science Alert.

This story has been updated with comments from Professor Silvera.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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