Class blog for sharing and commenting on current events in biology.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"The Big Squeeze"


Chang, Kenneth. "The Big Squeeze." NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

                  The article “The Big Squeeze” from the science section of the New York Times describes research that is taking place at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Russell J. Hemley and his colleagues are conducting the research on pressure and its affect on the behavior of molecules. In these experiments, they hope to discover new ways of controlling and honing in on pressure, similar to the pressure exerted in the Earth’s core. They do this by using a very highly technological machine called a diamond anvil. This anvil is composed of two cylinder plates, which press together the tips of two small diamonds. Each of these diamonds is about a quarter to a half of a carat. On the tip of one diamond, there is a notch carved for the purpose of trapping any material that is to be pressurized, or “squeezed” as the article coins it. The purpose of the other diamond tip is to press down on the material being squeezed. To pressurize gases, a box is used around the apparatus to try to squeeze as much gas as possible. The diamond anvil is quite remarkable since it has the ability to pressurize 50 million pounds per square inch of material. It can do this because pressure is simply force divided by area, and since the diamond tips are so small, the force exerted on the materials are immense. The article makes a comparison to elephants, and how the pressure the diamond makes is like taking one hundred elephants and having all of their weight push down on the point of a pencil. Needless to say, these diamond anvils are very powerful. The scientists at Carnegie have been using this machine to study different elements’ reactions to this high pressure. For example, the scientists predicted that the atoms making up these elements would remain in organized stacks, and just become closer together when pressurized. However, when they performed this experiment, they found to their surprise that the atoms lost their organization and shifted into jumbled, complex arrangements. For instance, when nitrogen was squeezed, it changed from “dumbbell-shaped pairs” to a web-like structure. Dr. Hemley describes this discovery as “a new and different periodic table.” Hydrogen turns to flat, hexagonal sheets of metal, and red oxygen when squeezed, creates red crystals. This newfound knowledge raises questions about elements not just on the Earth, but also in the entire galaxy. Scientists may have an explanation as to what Jupiter’s core is made of based off of the reactions taking place in the diamond anvil. If with enough pressure elements are completely changed, scientists have a better way of describing how planets are formed since pressure is very high in space. Ultimately, the research that is taking place at Carnegie Institution of Science is very noteworthy and could greatly progress high-pressure science.
                  Although this type of science may not seem like it affects the everyday lives of people, it in fact does. One goal of these experiments is to discover and produce new materials that will capture sunlight more effectively. By doing so, this could dramatically help the efficiency of solar cells that produce electricity or become the fuel tanks in hydrogen-powered cars. If this were to be accomplished, it would benefit the automotive industry and could convince people to switch to solar powered energy. I found this to be very interesting, how a complex machine like a diamond anvil can be used to help everyday life. Also, experiments are being conducted to see what happens when silicon and sodium are squeezed. It was found that it formed a tube-like structure and when the sodium was extracted using chemicals, it was found to absorb more photons. It may seem that this is insignificant to humanity as a whole, but by discovering this, it allows researchers to explore how to create this type of material without the diamond anvil. If they accomplish this, it could be used commercially in photovoltaic cells (cells which generate current or voltage when illuminated). In addition, testing carbon at high-pressures could offer some explanation to certain aspects of life. For example, by getting a better understanding of what happens to carbon at high-pressure levels, scientists could discover just how much carbon exists on Earth and if the formation of life could be possible in extreme environments. All in all, these discoveries could lead to a very technologically advanced world in the future.

                  Overall, I thought this article did a very good job at explaining what high-pressure science meant and the experiments involved in this type of science. It gave a lot of examples as to what happens to certain elements when pressurized and how these discoveries were significant. I also thought that by taking the time to explain what the diamond anvil was, what it was made of, and comparing it to the real world, made it easier to understand the significance of such a complex machine. However, the article became a little hard to follow once it started discussing Jupiter and the Earth’s core. If it gave a little more background on how the anvil related to this, it would have made it easier to follow. In addition, although describing the reactions of different elements was interesting, the article got a little too technical. It started going into great detail on the experiments, which was not really necessary. However, the article was written about a very interesting topic that I had never heard of before and made me realize how these new discoveries could impact our world for the better.

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