10 Impossible Things Physicists Just Made Possible

Molecular Black Hole

A team of physicists recently created something that behaved like a black hole.[3] They deployed the most powerful X-ray laser in existence, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), to zap iodomethane and iodobenzene molecules. Researchers expected the beam to scoop most of the electrons from the molecule’s iodine atom, leaving a vacuum. In experiments with weaker lasers, this emptiness then hoovered up electrons from the outermost part of the atom. When LCLS struck, the expected happened—followed by something surprising. Instead of stopping with itself, the iodine atom began eating electrons from neighboring hydrogen and carbon atoms. It was like a tiny black hole inside a molecule.

Subsequent blasts knocked out the stolen electrons, but the void sucked in some more. The cycle was repeated until the entire molecule exploded. The iodine atom was the only atom that behaved like this. Bigger than the rest, it absorbed an enormous amount of X-ray energy, losing its original electrons. The loss left the atom with a strong enough positive charge to strip the electrons from smaller atoms.

Metallic Hydrogen

It’s been called the “holy grail of high-pressure physics,” but until now, no scientist has ever succeeded in forging metallic hydrogen.[4] As a possible superconductor, it is a highly sought-after form of the normally gaseous element. The possibility of turning hydrogen into a metal was first proposed in 1935. Physicists theorized that massive pressure could cause the transformation. The problem was that nobody could produce that kind of extreme pressure.

In 2017, a US team tweaked an old technique and brought the theoretical material into existence for the first time. Prior experiments were performed inside a device called a diamond anvil cell. Force is generated by using two synthetic diamonds opposite each other, but they always cracked at the critical point. The physicists used the cell chamber but designed a new shaping and polishing process that prevented the dreaded fractures. The device was then able to produce a staggering pressure: more than 71.7 million pounds per square inch. Not even at the center of the Earth does one find such a squeeze.

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