AI shows how hydrogen becomes a metal inside giant planets

AI shows how hydrogen becomes a metal inside giant planets

Researchers have used a combination of AI and quantum mechanics to reveal how hydrogen gradually turns into a metal in giant planets.

Dense metallic hydrogen – a phase of hydrogen which behaves like an electrical conductor – makes up the interior of giant planets, but it is difficult to study and poorly understood. By combining artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics, researchers have found how hydrogen becomes a metal under the extreme pressure conditions of these planets.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, IBM Research and EPFL, used machine learning to mimic the interactions between hydrogen atoms in order to overcome the size and timescale limitations of even the most powerful supercomputers. They found that instead of happening as a sudden, or first-order, transition, the hydrogen changes in a smooth and gradual way. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

Hydrogen, consisting of one proton and one electron, is both the simplest and the most abundant element in the Universe. It is the dominant component of the interior of the giant planets in our solar system – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – as well as exoplanets orbiting other stars.

At the surfaces of giant planets, hydrogen remains a molecular gas. Moving deeper into the interiors of giant planets however, the pressure exceeds millions of standard atmospheres. Under this extreme compression, hydrogen undergoes a phase transition: the covalent bonds inside hydrogen molecules break, and the gas becomes a metal that conducts electricity.

“The existence of metallic hydrogen was theorised a century ago, but what we haven’t known is how this process occurs, due to the difficulties in recreating the extreme pressure conditions of the interior of a giant planet in a laboratory setting, and the enormous complexities of predicting the behaviour of large hydrogen systems,” said lead author Dr Bingqing Cheng from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

Experimentalists have attempted to investigate dense hydrogen using a diamond anvil cell, in which two diamonds apply high pressure to a confined sample. Although diamond is the hardest substance on Earth, the device will fail under extreme pressure and high temperatures, especially when in contact with hydrogen, contrary to the claim that a diamond is forever. This makes the experiments both difficult and expensive.

Theoretical studies are also challenging: although the motion of hydrogen atoms can be solved using equations based on quantum mechanics, the computational power needed to calculate the behaviour of systems with more than a few thousand atoms for longer than a few nanoseconds exceeds the capability of the world’s largest and fastest supercomputers.

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Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

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