Strange Hydrogen

Gas giants, like Jupiter, Saturn, or some of the largest exoplanets, are mostly made of Hydrogen gas.  The simplest and most abundant element in the universe, Hydrogen easily reacts to form compounds, especially at higher temperatures, making it hard to contain and work with.  It’s essential to understand how it behaves across a range of temperatures and pressures so that we can understand the interiors of stars and planets.  But there may also be applications closer to home, like the white whale of materials science, a room temperature superconductor.

Laser-heated diamond anvil cell and a pair of diamonds can generate high-temperature and high-pressure conditions such as earth interior within the laboratory by placing the sample between the diamonds for laser-heating at high pressures. Credit: Image courtesy of Osaka University

A team of researchers from Osaka University and Tokyo Institute of Technology have found a way to study high temperature high pressure Hydrogen without it reacting with surrounding matter.  Involving a diamond anvil and laser heating, they were able to study the plasma phase transition, the point where hydrogen reaches the plasma state of matter, as it would in a star.  The researchers found anomalies in heating efficiency around the 82-106 GPa (Gigapascal) range, which likely corresponds to the point where Hydrogen becomes a plasma.

The experimental results suggest the critical point is higher than theoretical models predict.  Studying this critical point places constraints on how the interiors of gas giant planets behave, how stars form, and how Hydrogen might react as a superconducting material.  Figuring out the relation of pressure and temperature in Hydrogen could help create a solid metallic hydrogen state, which is expected to superconduct at high temperatures.

High temperature superconductivity would be a huge technological milestone. It which would allow for production of power lines that don’t lose energy over distance, advanced forms of medical imaging, and even levitation (yes I’m thinking of levitating cars, and yes I did just see star wars).

The methods are often overlooked when we talk about scientific breakthroughs.  To probe the depths of nature we need so much more than theoretical knowledge.  It takes ingenuity to develop the technology needed to look more closely at the theories.  When the breakthrough happens, the theory is usually what is celebrated, and it should be.  But we should never overlook the methodology, the work that goes in to proving it.  Because all the theory would be useless in science without the experiment to back it up.  That is the essence of the scientific method.


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