What Are the Commercial Prospects for the Recently Discovered Metallic Hydrogen?

03/08/2017 01:18 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2017
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With the hype around the discovery of metallic hydrogen, wouldn't it be far too expensive to mass produce? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Inna Vishik, Asst. Prof. of Physics at UC Davis, on Quora:

It should be of note that when brought to ambient pressure, some phases of matter produced at high pressures keep their metastable configuration. The best-known example is diamond, which is produced at high pressures inside the earth and is technically the metastable form of carbon at ambient pressure. You don’t exactly see diamonds decomposing into soot on ring fingers.

But that is beside the point.

If honestly produced in recent experiments, metallic atomic hydrogen is a breakthrough for fundamental science, not a product for immediate application. Basic science differs from applied research in that it is seeking to understand the fundamental truths of the natural and engineered world around us, rather than immediately create a product. Basic science does have applications, often astoundingly significant ones, but they tend to be indefinite, nonlinear, and realized decades in the future. See: What are some interesting cases where a piece of science (math, physics, etc.) was thought to be only theoretical, but turned out to have great applications?

What the alleged production of metallic atomic hydrogen (H, not H2) can teach us soon is:

  • The behavior of materials under high pressure. For example, people are not completely sure what kind of crystal structure is formed in metallic hydrogen (there are several different predictions), and this is pretty straightforward to confirm with synchrotron radiation. Cultivating our bottom-up understanding of matter at high pressures allows us to predict behavior in new situations, which may very well apply to a product or a useful idea. Employed in many fields, high-pressure experiments of various types include condensed matter physics, chemistry, geology, and planetary science; both the results and the methods of the metallic hydrogen experiment can apply to experiments or predictions in a very different field, which could teach us about something more immediately applicable (e.g. earthquakes).
  • Technology and techniques for achieving ever higher pressure. A diamond anvil cell sounds like a very expensive and esoteric device that can only produce limited amounts of a product. But this argument can be applied even more to a particle accelerator, and nowadays hospitals are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to buy particle accelerators to treat cancer using proton therapy—an example of the tools for basic science research finding completely different applications. Utilized in a variety of surprising industrial contexts, high-pressure processing such as food processing (the example of this that is most familiar is making espresso, but there are many other applications since chemistry changes at high pressure); when we push on the extremes of a process, we can sometimes make the mundane versions cheaper and easier. And there are some products that we can stand to make only tiny amounts of, such as lifesaving drugs for rare diseases.

Basic science is full of moonshots—great ideas that push the limits of human ingenuity to achieve. Achieving metallic atomic hydrogen in a lab is one of these, and if this actually occurred, our "use" for this innovation will almost certainly be something very different, but much greater, than a microscopic spec of metallized hydrogen sandwiched between two diamonds.

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