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Harvard Scientists Create Metallic Hydrogen, a "Holy Grail" Metal with Revolutionary Potential

Scientists from Harvard University claim to have created metallic hydrogen, a new metal with revolutionary potential applications. 

Since 1935, when it was first theorized, scientists have been trying to create metallic hydrogen, a new material with revolutionary potential applications. Now scientists from Harvard University published a paper in Science where they claim to have created it. If confirmed by further tests, the metallic hydrogen could become not only the rarest, but also one of the most valuable materials on Earth. Unfortunately, that precious metallic hydrogen sample – potentially the first of its kind – has just disappeared in the Harvard lab. 


The scientists Isaac Silvera, Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences, and post-doctoral fellow Ranga Dias, believe that what they created via high-pressure physics could have use as a superconductor, able to conduct electricity without loss at room temperature. If a reasonable way to produce this material will be found, its uses can extend to the electrical grid, maglev trains and superfast space travel.

Isaac Silvera has been working on this problem for 45 years. What he and Ranga Dias did to produce their groundbreaking atomic metallic hydrogen was to compress hydrogen gas in a diamond anvil. They then solidified it at very low temperatures and kept slowly increasing the pressure on the anvil by turning the screw. As reported by Harvard Magazine, once they reached 4 million atmospheres, greater than the pressure at the center of Earth, the transparent hydrogen turned black. At 4.95 million atmospheres, it had become a metal, reflecting 90% of light the scientists shined at it. 

"This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics," said Silvera. "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."

Compressed hydrogen transitioning with increasing pressure from transparent molecular to black molecular to atomic metallic hydrogen. The sketches below show a molecular solid being compressed and then dissociated to atomic hydrogen. Credit: R. Dias and I.F. Silvera

Now the scientists will wait a few weeks until beginning to test whether the new material is stable at normal pressures and room temperatures. Basically, it needs to remain in metallic form once the special conditions that produced it are removed. Right now you can only see this tiny piece of metal through the diamonds used to create it.

Once they ease the pressure, they will know if the material will remain stable, something predicted only in theory. 

“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 remains a diamond when that pressure and heat is removed,” explained Silvera.

Here’s a video featuring interviews with the scientists:

What will be the benefits of metallic hydrogen if the physicists can show the stability of their metal and be able to recreate it?

“As much as 15 per cent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story,” pointed out Silvera.

His colleague Ranga Dias sees another application:

“The most romantic application of superconductivity,” Dias said, would be “magnetic levitation of high-speed trains, based on the perfect diamagnetism of superconductors.” 

This would create a repulsive magnetic force, with much potential to disrupt the transportation industry. 

What’s more, NASA has provided some of Silvera’s funding in hopes that metallic hydrogen could be used as rocket propellant

"It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen," said Silvera. "And if you convert it back to molecular hydrogen, all that energy is released, so it would make it the most powerful rocket propellant known to man, and could revolutionize rocketry, enabling you to explore the outer planets, to put rockets into orbit with a single stage, and lift large payloads."

In fact, this release of energy would make metallic hydrogen 4 times as powerful as existing fuels.

First predicted by physicists Hillard Huntington and Eugene Wigner in 1935, there have been failed attempts to create metallic hydrogen previously, with the race to make it tightening between a number of teams. Since there is such potential for this to be a transformative accomplishment, some scientists have taken Silvera and Dias to task for not providing more details at this stage.

“I don’t think the paper is convincing at all,” said Paul Loubeyre, a physicist at France’s Atomic Energy Commission in Bruyères-le-Châtel, to Nature.

Other scientists are wondering how this team accomplished something that others have not yet been able to approach.

Dias and Silvera defended their work, saying that their accomplishment rests on utilizing novel techniques, improving on previous research. In particular, they figured out how to use greater pressures than anyone else was able to before. They also managed to polish the tips of the diamonds they used in a way that prevented them from breaking, an issue at such pressures.

“If we did it again, we’d get the same result, I’m certain,” said Dr. Silvera.

The editor of the magazine Science, which published their paper, also weighed in, saying that all papers must pass great scrutiny when peer-reviewed by experts and only 7% make it to publication.

Another scientist, geophysicist Alexander Goncharov of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, has questioned whether the created material might actually be alumina (aluminum oxide) which is used on the tips of the diamonds the experiment.

“If they want to be convincing, they have to redo the measurement, really measuring the evolution of pressure,” said Loubeyre. “Then they have to show that, in this pressure range, the alumina is not becoming metallic.” 

The Harvard scientists also have supporters in the scientific community.

“I think there’s a good chance that it’s correct,” said theoretical physicist David Ceperley of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

While there are some doubters, as Professor Silvera said himself: “I don’t want to guess, I want to do the experiment.” He feels accomplished already in figuring out the precise pressure at which hydrogen becomes a metal.

The moment when the scientists made their breakthrough speaks to the joy of scientific discovery. Here’s how Silvera described it:

“Ranga was running the experiment, and we thought we might get there, but when he called me and said, ‘The sample is shining’, I went running down there, and it was metallic hydrogen. I immediately said we have to make the measurements to confirm it, so we rearranged the lab ... and that's what we did.

It's a tremendous achievement, and even if it only exists in this diamond anvil cell at high pressure, it's a very fundamental and transformative discovery.”

You can read their study here, in Science magazine.

2/27 UPDATE: the only metallic hydrogen sample in the world has disappeared – the Harvard team plans to start the process again and continue its research. 

Cover photo: Diamond anvils compressing molecular hydrogen. At higher pressure the sample converts to atomic hydrogen, as shown on the right. Credit: R. Dias and I.F. Silvera

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  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
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  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

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Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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