Piling on pressure solves enduring mystery about metal's makeup

Scientists have solved a decades-old puzzle about a widely used metal, thanks to extreme pressure experiments and powerful supercomputing.

Their discovery reveals important fundamental aspects of the element , the lightest and simplest metal in the periodic table. The material is commonly used in batteries for phones and computers.

A mystery of how the metal's atoms are arranged—which influences properties such as its strength, malleability and conductivity—has been solved by their research.

An international team sought to better understand lithium's structure by studying it at cold temperatures. In this low-energy state, the fundamental properties of materials can be accurately observed.

Until now, it was difficult for scientists to explain previous experimental results indicating that lithium had a complex structure. To understand the theory properly required exceptionally accurate calculations using advanced quantum mechanics.

Their latest calculations, using the ARCHER supercomputer at the University of Edinburgh, found that lithium's structure is not complex or disordered, as previous results had suggested. Instead, its atoms are arranged simply, like oranges in a box.

Scientists suggest that in previous experiments, rapid cooling led to misleading results. To avoid those problems, they reached low-temperature conditions by placing samples of lithium under - up to 4,500 times that of Earth's atmosphere—by squeezing it between a pair of diamonds. They then cooled and depressurised the sample before examining it using a synchotron device, which uses X-ray beams to see atoms.

The study, from the Universities of Edinburgh and Utah, was published in Science.

Dr Miguel Martinez-Canales, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy, said "Our calculations needed an accuracy of one in 10 million, and would have taken over 40 years on a normal computer."

Professor Graeme Ackland, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy, said: "We were able to form a true picture of cold lithium by making it using high pressures. Rather than forming a complex , it has the simplest arrangement that there can be in nature."


Explore further

Feather-light metal cathodes for stable lithium-oxygen batteries

More information: "Quantum and isotope effects in lithium metal" Science (2017). science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi … 1126/science.aal4886
Journal information: Science

Citation: Piling on pressure solves enduring mystery about metal's makeup (2017, June 22) retrieved 18 June 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2017-06-piling-pressure-mystery-metal-makeup.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
10 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jun 23, 2017
So, what the bleep did they find???!

Jun 23, 2017
They found that Lithium has a simpler crystalline form than previous experiments showed. It has the simple structure of tetrahedral packing, like that of oranges or apples, or any equal size balls as opposed to some of the very complicated theoretical structures that previous experiements had shown.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more