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Metallic hydrogen and aeronautics

Picture of María Isabel Montero

María Isabel Montero

AERTEC / Head of PMO & MRO – Madrid Division


The aerospace industry is incessantly seeking new materials. We have discussed some of them previously on this blog, particularly endohedral fullerene belonging to the endohedral fullerene carbon family. This material could stimulate significant progress in aircraft automation thanks to the pin-point accuracy it provides to GPS devices, along with many other applications. At the end of 2015, the aircraft manufacturer Boeing announced the lightest known metallic structure; a microlattice metal comprised of a structure (99.99% of which is air) that could lead to lighter and therefore more efficient aircraft in overall terms.

Today, after more than 80 years of dreaming about creating a unique material on Earth based on hydrogen in its metal state that could revolutionise Physics, the professor of Natural Sciences Isaac Silvera and the researcher Ranga Dias from Harvard University have achieved it and have published a paper on the matter in Science entitled “Observation of the Wigner-Huntington transition to solid metallic hydrogen”.

Many researchers have believed they had obtained hydrogen’s metallic state and many others have dedicated their life’s work in an effort to find the right formula. The exciting thing about this race to obtain solid metallic hydrogen is the adventure itself involved in this challenge. It is as much sought after as it is important due to the fact that atomic metallic hydrogen would allow us to answer some fundamental questions about the nature of matter and how large gaseous planets like Jupiter generate their magnetic fields. This material is also thought to be a superconductor at ambient temperature with zero resistance and it could represent a radical change in the transmission and storage of electricity. Moreover, some scientists have affirmed that solid metallic hydrogen could be stable at low pressures. It is a material that would have a great many applications in industry, ranging from fusion power to its use as an energy vector.

However, what specific interest does this discovery arouse in the aerospace industry?

To date, the qualities of hydrogen we have seen in its super cold liquid form mainly have to do with its power as a rocket propellant. The dense metallic form of hydrogen could, in practice, provide enormous amounts of thrust that would make it possible to lift very heavy payloads from Earth. Speculation is also rife that it could be used to make electrical wiring with zero resistance. This would change our current notion of conductivity and reduce the mass of wires that can be found in any aircraft. Like many others, the American space agency is fascinated about the possibilities it has to offer.

There is a great deal of competition in Physics and it is highly likely that the outcome will be reproduced or refuted by other scholars. Some will confirm its success, or perhaps it is just another false alarm. We only have to wait for a few months to know for certain. For the moment, this new scientific contribution is generating a great deal of fuss. As Marcus Knudson from the Sandia National Laboratories in the USA affirmed to the BBC, “The scepticism this news has aroused is probably good, since it will motivate many other scientists to reproduce the experiment”.

For now, we are still in the initial stages of this scientific discovery. The amount of metallic hydrogen attained was tiny. However, if subsequent experiments throw up some positive results, it is highly likely that different ways to boost its production will be found.

The aerospace industry is avidly of seeking discoveries like this one that could revolutionise many facets of the industry.


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