Like turning a snowball back into fluffy snow, a new technique turns high-density materials into a lower-density one by applying the chemical equivalent of ‘negative pressure.’
Some materials can morph into multiple crystal structures with very different properties. For instance, squeezing a soft form of carbon produces diamond, a harder and more brilliant form of carbon. The Kurt Vonnegut novel “Cat’s Cradle” featured ice-nine, a fictional form of water with a much higher melting point than regular ice that threatened to irreversibly freeze all the water on Earth.
These materials are called polymorphs, and they’re commonly made by applying pressure, or squeezing. Scientists looking for new materials would also like to do the opposite – apply “negative pressure” to stretch a material’s crystal structure into a new configuration. In the past, this approach seemed to require negative pressures that are difficult if not impossible to achieve in the lab, plus it risked pulling the material apart.
Now researchers at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have found a way to create the equivalent of negative pressure by mixing two materials together under just the right conditions to make an alloy with an airier and entirely different crystal structure and unique properties.
Credit: Matt Beardsley/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory