The most abundant element in the universe has historically also been among the most elusive. Scientists are well aware of the wonders that hydrogen can bring us—from clean and abundant fuel to semiconductors with zero resistance—if only we can figure out how to fully harness its potential. The good news is that we are on clear a path to get there. Over the last few years, we have seen significant breakthroughs in hydrogen technology on several fronts. This is the face of the new hydrogen.
Just last week, Harvard researchers published a paper in Science Magazine claiming that they have successfully produced metallic hydrogen for the first time. If their experiments can be replicated by the scientific community, it would be the first time that “solid metallic hydrogen has ever existed on Earth,” as they put it. For perspective, scientists believe this state of hydrogen only exists naturally in the high-pressure cores of massive planets like Jupiter and Saturn. Producing it here on our planet could be transformative.
Solid Metallic Hydrogen: 80-Years in the Making
The scientists behind this recent hydrogen discovery are Ranga Dias, a research fellow at Harvard’s physics department, and Isaac Silvera, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard University. Their January 26, 2017 paper in Science Magazine entitled, “Observation of the Wigner-Huntington Transition to Metallic Hydrogen,” is named after physicists Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington who predicted the theoretical existence of this hydrogen state as early as 1935.
Dias and Silvera’s claim is being greeted with cautious optimism by the scientific community and the media because, if confirmed, the implications are quite significant. The keen interest by the scientific community to replicate the experiments of Dias and Silvera is put into context by a recent BBC article, which states, “Metallic hydrogen could be used to make zero-resistance electrical wiring and super-powerful rocket fuel, among many applications.”
According to their paper, the approach the Harvard scientists took to make hydrogen behave like a solid metal was to “pack the atoms of hydrogen so close together that they formed a crystal lattice and started to share their electrons—behavior that is exactly that of a metal.” The Harvard scientists say they achieved this result by applying pressures “equivalent of sitting under almost five million Earth atmospheres” and “chilling [it] down to close to minus 270 Celsius.”
Solid Metallic Hydrogen Could Enable Transformational Applications
If other scientists can successfully replicate this experiment and produce solid metallic hydrogen, a resulting application would be superconductivity that could transform the transmission and storage of electricity. The BBC article illustrates how: “Cables made from metallic hydrogen could feed energy across a country without the sort of electrical losses experienced in standard power grids.” For perspective, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates this loss to be 6% of all electricity—an equivalent of $16 billion dollars of lost revenue in 2015. The U.S. Department of Energy translates the loss in a different context, “Electricity-related transmission and distribution losses account for about 120 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMT CO2e) of power sector emissions each year.”
Dense hydrogen in a metallic form could also transform the space industry. NASA already uses liquid hydrogen as rocket fuel, given its energetic properties versus other fuels. Metallic hydrogen would enable NASA and the private rocket industry to “deliver really colossal levels of thrust that would enable huge payloads to be lifted off Earth,” according to the BBC article.
While promising, the realization of metallic hydrogen applications is years away. Jeffrey McMahon, assistant professor of physics at Washington State University, points out the challenges that lay ahead including, “making a larger quantity (at once); another, perhaps bigger challenge is to recover even the small sample (i.e., remove it from the extreme pressures that it is under in the diamond anvil cell).” Yet, this significant first step appears to be a revolutionary breakthrough that could unleash a new era for metallic hydrogen.
Hydrogen 2.0: The Other Face of New Hydrogen
At Joi Scientific, we are working on a different hydrogen technology, called Hydrogen 2.0, that will enable the production of hydrogen fuel directly from water, on-site and on-demand, 24/7 with no carbon emissions. Our work is focused on eliminating the barriers that have prevented this abundant energy source from taking off, namely infrastructure, safety, and efficiency. If we are successful, our efforts and that of many others in our field could unlock the transformative benefits of the number one element, thereby, making hydrogen energy sustainable and available worldwide.
Whether it is metallic hydrogen becoming the next superconductor, or clean Hydrogen 2.0 energy powering your city, the new face of hydrogen is shaping up to be a real game-changer that will continue to excite scientists, inspire entrepreneurs and help us solve global challenges.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.