The Only Sample of Metallic Hydrogen Has Gone Missing

Fagjun | Published 2017-03-04 00:39

Scientists lost the only sample of what may be metallic hydrogen.

These Harvard physicists may have to answer an age-old question: if you can't see something, is it real?

On January 26, 2017, researchers Isaac Silvera and Ranga Dias claimed that they've achieved something that other physicists have not.

In the report, they detailed how they were able to turn hydrogen into metal, something that had eluded physicists for eight decades. Hydrogen, usually found in a gaseous state, is supremely difficult to turn into metal. If this occurs, however, the finished product can possibly function as a superconductor. An achievement like this is an incredibly significant milestone in scientific progress.

That is, if the researchers can prove that it actually happened. Just a month after the paper was published, the only extant sample of metallic hydrogen went missing.

Forming Metallic Hydrogen

High pressures cause hydrogen to turn from transparent to reflective. Being able to reflect light is a key characteristic of metals.

Changing a chemical's physical state isn't always easy. Silvera and Dias, however, claim to have found away to turn hydrogen into metal.

First, they took a very small sample of almost-frozen hydrogen. They then treated a pair of synthetic diamonds with sapphires. These diamonds had to be completely impermeable to gas at extremely high pressures.

The researchers placed the hydrogen sample in between the diamonds, subjecting it to pressures millions of times heavier than those at sea level. Through this process, the researchers were able to produce metallic hydrogen. The only sample they came up with, however, was just a fraction of a millimeter big.

A Rare Substance Lost

So what happened to the sample?

We don't know,” research team leader Silvera answered. “It’s either some place at room pressure, very small, or it just turned back into a gas.”

Before the sample went missing, it was kept in temperatures about -193 degrees Celsius and at very high pressures. It was still pressed in between the two diamonds to make sure it kept its present solid state. Due to further testing, the diamonds cracked, and the sample went missing.

These two diamonds held the sample in low temperatures and high pressures.

Finding the sample would be near-impossible. With a diameter of 10 micrometers, it is essentially invisible to the naked eye. Though the sample may just be somewhere in the lab, it is also possible that it returned to its gaseous state.

Questionable Findings

A missing sample is impossible to test, so verifying the product itself is out the window. Other scientists also remain skeptical about the findings. Other researchers have claimed to have achieved the same thing before, but their findings have turned out to be bogus.

Even Silvera and Dias's sample may not even be metallic hydrogen. They were not actually able to test if the gas did turn into metal. They simply observed that the sample reflected light like a metal would.

Despite the loss of the sample and skeptical criticisms, the researchers remain undaunted. They plan on trying to create another sample, this time with much durable diamonds. The sample will no longer be kept in storage for too long, as well. In the future, maybe the world will lay eyes on the first actual sample of metallic hydrogen.

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