Tag: physics

Metallic hydrogen, once theory, becomes reality

Metallic hydrogen, once theory, becomes reality

Image of diamond anvils compressing molecular hydrogen. At higher pressure the sample converts to atomic hydrogen, as shown on the right. Credit: R. Dias and I.F. Silvera

Nearly a century after it was theorized, Harvard scientists have succeeded in creating the rarest – and potentially one of the most valuable – materials on the planet.

The material – atomic  – was created by Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Isaac Silvera and post-doctoral fellow Ranga Dias. In addition to helping scientists answer fundamental questions about the nature of matter, the material is theorized to have a wide range of applications, including as a . The creation of the rare material is described in a January 26 paper published in Science.

“This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics,” Silvera said. “It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.”

To create it, Silvera and Dias squeezed a tiny hydrogen sample at 495 gigapascal, or more than 71.7 million pounds-per-square inch – greater than the pressure at the center of the Earth. At those extreme pressures, Silvera explained, solid molecular hydrogen -which consists of molecules on the lattice sites of the solid – breaks down, and the tightly bound molecules dissociate to transforms into , which is a metal.

While the work offers an important new window into understanding the general properties of hydrogen, it also offers tantalizing hints at potentially revolutionary new .

“One prediction that’s very important is metallic hydrogen is predicted to be meta-stable,” Silvera said. “That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remains a diamond when that pressure and heat is removed.”

Understanding whether the material is stable is important, Silvera said, because predictions suggest metallic hydrogen could act as a superconductor at room temperatures.

“That would be revolutionary,” he said. “As much as 15 percent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story.”

Among the holy grails of physics, a room temperature superconductor, Dias said, could radically change our transportation system, making magnetic levitation of high-speed trains possible, as well as making electric cars more efficient and improving the performance of many electronic devices.

The material could also provide major improvements in energy production and storage – because superconductors have zero resistance energy could be stored by maintaining currents in superconducting coils, and then be used when needed.

Metallic hydrogen, once theory, becomes reality
Photos of compressed hydrogen transitioning with increasing pressure from transparent molecular to black molecular to atomic metallic hydrogen. The sketches below show a molecular solid being compressed and then dissociated to atomic hydrogen. Credit: R. Dias and I.F. Silvera

Though it has the potential to transform life on Earth, metallic hydrogen could also play a key role in helping humans explore the far reaches of space, as the most powerful rocket propellant yet discovered.

“It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen,” Silvera explained. “And if you convert it back to molecular hydrogen, all that energy is released, so it would make it the most powerful rocket propellant known to man, and could revolutionize rocketry.”

The most powerful fuels in use today are characterized by a “specific impulse” – a measure, in seconds, of how fast a propellant is fired from the back of a rocket – of 450 seconds. The specific impulse for metallic hydrogen, by comparison, is theorized to be 1,700 seconds.

“That would easily allow you to explore the outer planets,” Silvera said. “We would be able to put rockets into orbit with only one stage, versus two, and could send up larger payloads, so it could be very important.”

To create the new material, Silvera and Dias turned to one of the hardest materials on Earth – diamond.

But rather than natural diamond, Silvera and Dias used two small pieces of carefully polished synthetic diamond which were then treated to make them even tougher and then mounted opposite each other in a device known as a .

“Diamonds are polished with diamond powder, and that can gouge out carbon from the surface,” Silvera said. “When we looked at the diamond using atomic force microscopy, we found defects, which could cause it to weaken and break.”

The solution, he said, was to use a reactive ion etching process to shave a tiny layer – just five microns thick, or about one-tenth of a human hair – from the diamond’s surface. The diamonds were then coated with a thin layer of alumina to prevent the hydrogen from diffusing into their crystal structure and embrittling them.

After more than four decades of work on metallic hydrogen, and nearly a century after it was first theorized, seeing the material for the first time, Silvera said, was thrilling.

“It was really exciting,” he said. “Ranga was running the experiment, and we thought we might get there, but when he called me and said, ‘The sample is shining,’ I went running down there, and it was metallic hydrogen.

“I immediately said we have to make the measurements to confirm it, so we rearranged the lab…and that’s what we did,” he said. “It’s a tremendous achievement, and even if it only exists in this diamond anvil cell at high pressure, it’s a very fundamental and transformative discovery.”

Probe for nanofibers has atom-scale sensitivity

Probe for nanofibers has atom-scale sensitivity

Graphic depicting nanofiber evanescent light (red) entering probe fiber (larger glass cylinder). Credit: E. Edwards

Optical fibers are the backbone of modern communications, shuttling information from A to B through thin glass filaments as pulses of light. They are used extensively in telecommunications, allowing information to travel at near the speed of light virtually without loss.

These days, biologists, physicists and other scientists regularly use optical fibers to pipe light around inside their labs. In one recent application, quantum research labs have been reshaping optical fibers, stretching them into tiny tapers (see Nanofibers and designer light traps). For these nanometer-scale tapers, or nanofibers, the injected light still makes its way from A to B, but some of it is forced to travel outside the fiber’s exterior surface. The exterior light, or evanescent field, can capture atoms and then carry information about that light-matter interaction to a detector.

Fine-tuning such evanescent light fields is tricky and requires tools for characterizing both the fiber and the light. To this end, researchers from JQI and the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) have developed a novel method to measure how light propagates through a nanofiber, allowing them to determine the nanofiber’s thickness to a precision less than the width of an atom. The technique, described in the January 20, 2017 issue of the journal Optica , is direct, fast and, unlike the standard imaging method, preserves the integrity of the fiber. As a result, the probe can be used in-situ with the nanofiber fabrication equipment, which will streamline implementation in quantum optics and quantum information experiments. Developing reliable and precise tools for this platform may enable nanofiber technology for sensing and metrology applications.

Light waves have a characteristic size called the wavelength. For visible light, the wavelength is roughly 100 times smaller than a human hair. Light can also have the appearance of different shapes, such a solid circle, ring, clover and more (see image below). Fibers restrict the way light waves can travel and twisting or bending a fiber will alter the light’s characteristics. Nanofibers are made by reshaping a normal fiber into an hourglass-like design, which further affects the guided light waves.

Probe for nanofibers has atom-scale sensitivity
Examples of light shapes. Each panel shows a 3D (top) and 2D (bottom) intensity profile. The red (blue) areas indicate more (less) light intensity. The effect of the fiber appears in the 3D images as a sharp cutout; in 2D the fiber interface looks like a ring-shaped edge. Credit: P. Solano and L. Orozco

In this experiment, researchers inject a combination of light shapes into a nanofiber. The light passes down a thinning taper, squeezes through a narrow waist, and then exits out the other side of the taper. The changing fiber size distorts the , and multiple patterns emerge from the interfering light shapes (See JQI News on Collecting lost light). This is analogous to musical notes, or sound waves, beating together to form a complex chord.

The researchers make direct measurements of the interference patterns (beats). To do this, they employ a second micron-sized fiber that acts as a non-invasive sensor. The nanofiber is on a moving stage and crosses the probe fiber at an oblique angle. At the touching point, a tiny fraction of nanofiber light evanescently enters the second fiber and travels to a detector. As they scan the probe along the length of the nanofiber, the probe detector collects information about the evolving patterns of nanofiber light. The researchers simultaneously monitor the light transmitting through the  to ensure that the probe process is harmless.

The team can achieve a high level of precision with this technique because they are not imaging the fiber with a camera, which would have a spatial resolution limited by the collected light’s wavelength. UMD graduate student Pablo Solano explains, “We are actually seeing the different light modes mix together and that sets the limits on determining the fiber waist—in this case sub-angstrom.” A standard tool known as scanning electron microscopy (SEM) can also measure fiber dimensions with nanoscale resolution. This, however, has a comparative disadvantage, says Eliot Fenton, a UMD undergraduate student working on the project, “With our new method, we can avoid using SEM, which destroys the fiber with imaging chemicals and heating.” Other techniques involve collecting randomly scattered light from the fiber, which is less direct and susceptible to errors. Solano summarizes how researchers can benefit from this new tool, “By directly and sensitively measuring the interference (beating) of  without destroying the fiber, we can know exactly the kind of electromagnetic field that we would apply to atoms.”

Physicists discover a new form of light

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Physicists from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Physics and the CRANN Institute, Trinity College, have discovered a new form of light, which will impact our understanding of the fundamental nature of light.

One of the measurable characteristics of a beam oflight is known as angular momentum. Until now, it was thought that in all forms of light the angular momentum would be a multiple of Planck’s constant (the physical constant that sets the scale of quantum effects).

Now, recent PhD graduate Kyle Ballantine and Professor Paul Eastham, both from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Physics, along with Professor John Donegan from CRANN, have demonstrated a new form of light where the angular momentum of each photon (a particle of visible light) takes only half of this value. This difference, though small, is profound. These results were recently published in the online journal Science Advances.

Commenting on their work, Assistant Professor Paul Eastham said: “We’re interested in finding out how we can change the way light behaves, and how that could be useful. What I think is so exciting about this result is that even this fundamental property of light, that physicists have always thought was fixed, can be changed.”

Professor John Donegan said: “My research focuses on nanophotonics, which is the study of the behaviour of light on the nanometer scale. A beam of light is characterised by its colour or wavelength and a less familiar quantity known as angular momentum. Angular momentum measures how much something is rotating. For a beam of light, although travelling in a straight line it can also be rotating around its own axis. So when light from the mirror hits your eye in the morning, every photon twists your eye a little, one way or another.”

“Our discovery will have real impacts for the study of light waves in areas such as secure optical communications.”

Professor Stefano Sanvito, Director of CRANN, said: “The topic of light has always been one of interest to physicists, while also being documented as one of the areas of physics that is best understood. This discovery is a breakthrough for the world of physics and science alike. I am delighted to once again see CRANN and Physics in Trinity producing fundamental scientific research that challenges our understanding of light.”

To make this discovery, the team involved used an effect discovered in the same institution almost 200 years before. In the 1830s, mathematician William Rowan Hamilton and physicist Humphrey Lloyd found that, upon passing through certain crystals, a ray of light became a hollow cylinder. The team used this phenomenon to generate beams of light with a screw-like structure.

Analysing these beams within the theory of quantum mechanics they predicted that the angular momentum of the photon would be half-integer, and devised an experiment to test their prediction. Using a specially constructed device they were able to measure the flow of angular momentum in a beam of light. They were also able, for the first time, to measure the variations in this flow caused byquantum effects. The experiments revealed a tiny shift, one-half of Planck’s constant, in the angular momentum of each photon.

Theoretical physicists since the 1980s have speculated how quantum mechanics works for particles that are free to move in only two of the three dimensions of space. They discovered that this would enable strange new possibilities, including particles whose quantum numbers were fractions of those expected. This work shows, for the first time, that these speculations can be realised with light.