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The World's Only Sample Of Metallic Hydrogen Just Vanished

author

Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

clockFeb 23 2017, 12:42 UTC

Huh? Elesey/Shutterstock

The world’s first sample of metallic hydrogen, whose existence was only confirmed this January, has suddenly gone missing.

It appears that the orb of extremely compressed matter vanished from the scientific laboratory in which humanity first laid eyes on it. The team from Harvard – after spending more than four decades trying to forge it – are bemused, to say the least.

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“Basically, it's disappeared,” team leader Professor Isaac Silvera told ScienceAlert. “It's either someplace at room pressure, very small, or it just turned back into a gas. We don't know.”

Metallic hydrogen is something of a legendary substance, whose creation amounts to modern-day alchemy.

It’s suspected to exist in the heart of vast gas giants, like Jupiter or Saturn. Under extremely high pressures – those up to 5 million times that of our own planet’s atmosphere – gaseous hydrogen rearranges itself to act like a solid or liquid metal.

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Ever since it was first hypothesized back in the mid-1930s, researchers have hoped to make it in order to conclusively prove its existence. Miraculously, just last month, a team from Harvard University managed to use a specially constructed diamond anvil to hammer the beast into being.

Although other scientists have cast serious doubts over whether their compression genuinely did forge the metallic hydrogen – especially as it’s very difficult to experimentally confirm whether or not it truly behaves like a metal under such intense pressures – there’s solid evidence suggesting that the Harvard team were successful in their endeavors.

The metallic hydrogen orb. Isaac Silvera/Harvard University

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In order to keep the hydrogen from potentially violently expanding back outwards into a gas again, the team had to keep it at temperatures nearing absolute zero, and under the extremely high pressures that were used to synthesize it in the first place.

However, during a routine test, one of the diamond grips shattered, and the metallic hydrogen sample disappeared along with it.

The sample produced was no thicker than a fifth of the width of a human hair. There’s a chance, then, that it’s essentially “fallen down the back of the sofa” and the team cannot physically see it. However, it could have been unstable enough to turn back into a gas, which means that the world’s only sample of metallic hydrogen has been lost forever.

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Metallic hydrogen has the potential to change the world. It stores so much energy that it could make the most powerful rocket fuel the world has ever seen. As a powerful, shiny superconductor, it can also conduct electricity without resistance.

Maybe, then, the sample hasn’t really gone missing, but has mysteriously found its way into the hands of a supervillain.

In any case, they should get Holmes on the case of the missing hydrogen. We’re sure he’ll solve such an “elementary” case with ease.


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