Sunday, December 22, 2013

Pressing precious

It’s a new kind of chemistry,” says geophysicist Russell J. Hemley of the Carnegie Institution for Science about something which I again admit is beyond my comprehension. By squeezing substances between 2 diamonds they cause changes in the molecules that result in a surprising modern-day alchemy. And by squeeze, I mean exerting pressure of 50 million pounds per square inch and above inside a special anvil. At that pressure, oxygen becomes a shiny metal. Noble gases interact with hydrogen to become new structures, and hydrogen forms a hexagonal pattern. Everyday items like peanut butter, roofing tar, and wood become diamonds! As the atoms reconfigure, the properties of the substances change: some can then insulate, others become superconductors, some alter their transparency. Scientists are experimenting with the chemical reactions of carbon under extreme pressure to determine the conditions necessary for the formation of life. They are studying these high-pressure transformations to understand what is going on in the earth's core, but also to develop new materials to efficiently produce or store electricity. You have a new and different periodic table, in a sense,” sums up Dr. Hemley.

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