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Canada Science

Atomic Disguise Makes Helium Look Like Hydrogen 127

An anonymous reader writes "In a feat of modern-day alchemy, atom tinkerers have fooled hydrogen atoms into accepting a helium atom as one of their own, reports New Scientist. Donald Fleming of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and colleagues managed to disguise a helium atom as a hydrogen atom by replacing one of its orbiting electrons with a muon, which is far heavier than an electron. The camouflaged atom behaves chemically like hydrogen, but has four times the mass of normal hydrogen, allowing predictions for how atomic mass affects reaction rates to be put to the test."
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Atomic Disguise Makes Helium Look Like Hydrogen

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Can we make a bomb out of it?

    • I'm pretty sure nuclear weapons (you know, dealing with the nucleus of the atom) already are much more energetic than anything that merely chemical can hope to muster, whether it be electrons or muons in your atoms' orbitals.

      (Also, muons generally decay in a couple of microseconds, which has the potential to complicate the weapon delivery system).

      • This doesn't necessarily exclude nuclear weapons. One of the ideas for fusion is to use hydrogen atoms with a muon instead of an electron orbiting them. Because the muon is heavier, it orbits closer, meaning that less energy is required to collide two together (once you get inside the lepton shell, the two nuclei repel each other until the strong attraction becomes greater than the electrostatic repulsion, at which point you have fusion).

        Of course, as you say, the instability of muons makes this imprac

        • by Sanat ( 702 )

          You would just need really fast missiles. 5000 nautical miles in 2 microseconds ... well that would be a really bright idea.

          • by jabuzz ( 182671 )

            Especially as you would be going 15444 times faster than the speed of light. The kinetic energy of 1kg of mass traveling at that speed (leaving aside that it is impossible) is equivalent to 2.5billion megatons of TNT so no need for any explosive component.

            • by blueZ3 ( 744446 )

              But 2.5 billion megatons of TNT gives a new meaning to "mutually assured destruction" doesn't it?

            • Calculated by newtonian mechanics, I assume. I dare you calculate it by relativistic mechanics.

    • by Lehk228 ( 705449 )
      the change is in how it reacts chemically, so it would be unlikely to have nuclear effects, i suppose with enough you could try oxidizing it, but hydrogen gas doesn't make a good bomb, so this would likely not either.
    • You may be able to, but why would you want to. Helium is a lot more expensive than hydrogen to begin with, and this "mutated" helium is probably an order of magnitude more expensive still. Of course, hydrogen bombs work by fusing hydrogen into helium, so your bomb would have to fuse helium into lithium or beryllium. That's probably a harder reaction to establish and may not yield as much. (Although it should be noted that fusion bombs typically bombard lithium with neutrons and fission it into tritium,
      • Oh don't worry about the cost. Just borrow the money from the people you're going to blow up. They may not be around to collect!

        • Uh oh, I think you just stumbled onto the United States' long-term geopolitical strategy. I hope China isn't reading /.

  • Super cool (Score:5, Insightful)

    by chihowa ( 366380 ) * on Sunday January 30, 2011 @12:29PM (#35049450)

    This is super cool, but less for the kinetic isotope effect (KIE) studies and more for the muon-electron substitution. We've compared isotope masses with reaction rates using deuterium and tritium before, so using "H-4" and "H-5" is nice for extended validation, but not unexpected. The muonium is pretty bad-ass, though.

    • In related news, GE UK today announces the discovery that muonium Cooper pairs confined within a transparent aluminum lattice lengthens tau while decreasing atomic radius, potentially leading to a viable fusion energy source.

      "It's possible we could fabricate power transmission lines directly from Transparent Muominium(TM) (TM), and disconnect the generating stations completely," declared a GE scientist, thumbing his nose at a rival division. "We've already begun a series of avian studies on TM power line s

    • The problem is that they not only changed the mass, they substituted a muon for an electron. That would probably change the reactivity of anything.
  • Can we make these now? What would they be called?

  • by Cyko_01 ( 1092499 ) on Sunday January 30, 2011 @12:54PM (#35049548) Homepage
    does it make your voice go higher or lower when inhaled?
    • Yes.
    • by Menkhaf ( 627996 ) on Sunday January 30, 2011 @01:23PM (#35049712)

      I guess it was a joke, but it should be rather simple to determine: if the gas if lighter than the atmosphere you're breathing, your voice will be lighter if you inhale this.

      • by sploxx ( 622853 ) on Sunday January 30, 2011 @02:45PM (#35050106)

        To be more specific, the molecular weight of normal He to He with one muon attached is roughly 4.1/4.0. The change in pitch relative to breathing He should be the square root of that ratio, which is a change of about 1.2%. For someone with absolute pitch, it may be possible to hear the difference of tone of a musical instrument. But I doubt anyone will hear a difference when a person speaks.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Actually, it would be able to form diatomic molecules, so the mass ratio would be 8.2/4. Taking the square root of that would leave you with a pitch approximately half an octave lower than normal helium.
          that said, the half-life of this stuff is shorter than the period of many audible sounds, so it's a rather pointless calculation.

  • by DCFusor ( 1763438 ) on Sunday January 30, 2011 @12:57PM (#35049566) Homepage
    Is theorized to work with fusible fuels (say deuterium). But muons don't seem to live long enough to make it practical, they take a lot of energy per to make and have very short lives. In essence, they don't live long enough to catalyze enough fusion to pay back the energy of creation at this point.

    So what's interesting is that they were able to do this at all -- either they found a way to extend muon life (unlikely, or that would be the main news here), or they worked insanely fast to get their results before the decay.

    • by angel'o'sphere ( 80593 ) on Sunday January 30, 2011 @10:53PM (#35053222) Journal
      In essence, they don't live long enough to catalyze enough fusion to pay back the energy of creation at this point. That is for free myons!!! As soon as they are bound to an atom core and involved in a chemical bound they live as long as any other particle ... e.g. an electron. Angel
      • I was unaware of that, can you point me at any paper or research that shows this? I'd guess that if true, no one noticed as the unbound lifetime is far too short to get one bound by the time you slow it down enough.
  • That's right up there with the air in China being "crazy bad".

    I miss the olden days when scientists would speak appropriately about their topics. These days it's too much filmreel, not enough plain real. Too much Hollywood and MTV and too little importance behind their work.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Rick Santorum was right. Gay marriage leads to a slippery slope... man on man, man on dog, helium on hydrogen...

    We've truly lost the culture wars.

  • This discovery might really be ground-breaking if it can reduce the volatility of hydrogen and make it more suitable for use in traditional, internal combustion engines in cars and small trucks. I don't believe electric cars are really the answer to a cleaner environment because batteries have a finite life span and use caustic chemicals. However, I believe some scientists expressed concern over helium depletion. Here is a link about a []">theory of helium deplet
    • Uh, no. Or to quote someone with more standing, "I don't believe that word means what you think it means."
    • If it is a theory, it is supported by many strands of scientific evidence, and so should be taken seriously. But maybe it is not a theory, just a hypothesis. Please try not to misuse the word "theory", it only helps the creationists, quack doctors, climate change denialists and so on in their attempts to discredit science.

    • Depends on how far you can drive in 2 microseconds.

      Also, assuming too many things to count, if you made hydrogen less volatile, would it not also likely generate less energy when burned?

    • And ICEs and fuel cells don't?
  • Government: uhm....Yea..but is it green? Prof: This is science, applications come after Government: Can't use it in election. Grant Denied Next Man: This is high gloss lipstick Government: Does it help me in Election Next Man: It will Make PM look 10 years younger with better lips than Angelina Jolie Prime Minister: Grant for $10,000,0000 approved. Have it ready in 6 months Ugh!!! could've done better :( I am comedically challenged...
  • by Mr Z ( 6791 ) on Sunday January 30, 2011 @01:23PM (#35049710) Homepage Journal
    I come in last night about half past ten,
    That hydrogen wouldn't let me in.
    So muon on over. Rock it on over.
    Move over little atom, a mean, old atom's muon in.
  • by l0ungeb0y ( 442022 ) on Sunday January 30, 2011 @01:26PM (#35049730) Homepage Journal

    It seems that after infiltrating the molecular structure, the rogue atom saps the sentries before heading to the Intel Room to steal the briefcase.

    • Er, does that mean it could be heard to say "IM IN UR MOLLYCOOLZ CATALIZIN UR FOOZION"?

      (Lameness filter ballast)

  • Great work at TRIUMF (Score:5, Informative)

    by sackvillian ( 1476885 ) on Sunday January 30, 2011 @01:52PM (#35049860)
    For those wondering what the experiment entailed:

    Fleming's team shot muons produced at the TRIUMF accelerator in Vancouver into a cloud of helium, molecular hydrogen and ammonia. The helium atoms captured the muons, then pulled hydrogen atoms away from the molecular hydrogen and bonded with them.

    This was all done at TRIUMF, the world's largest cyclotron and by far the best particle accelerator in Canada. Plus, Donald Truhlar (a giant in the field) supported the experimental rate constants with quantum mechanical predictions - very neat stuff indeed!

    • by Anonymous Coward

      so...this was a TRIUMF? You're making a note here, "huge success"? Can you hardly contain your satisfaction?

      • The OP should be proud... they haven't had much success since releasing "Edge of Excess" in 1993. This is in Canada, after all.

    • Good job by our friends to the North, I say -- Props, guys. Denigrating their equipment is ignorant, do you think it takes a better or worse scientist to get to meaningful results on the new shiny stuff, or the older stuff, anyway. Did someone with fancier stuff find this first elsewhere? Then who's got the good scientists, again?
    • by Geminii ( 954348 )

      This was all done at TRIUMF

      I'm making a note here...

  • The summary says they start with a helium atom (which has 2 protons and 2 neutrons), and they make it look like a hydrogen atom (with only one proton and no neutrons) my making it *heavier*? This makes no sense whatsoever

    • I read it too quickly. I'm the one who had it backwards. I thought, because of the muon's negative charge, it would continue to behave like Helium chemically, but would be heavier (presumably like Hydrogen, which is lighter, which is why I thought it was backwards).

    • by sploxx ( 622853 )

      A muon has about a tenth the mass of a proton/neutron. An electron only has only about a 1/2000th the mass of a proton/neutron.

    • They took the Helium atom and replaced one electron with a muon. The clever part is that they managed to get the muon in an orbital shell so low that it effectively cancelled out the positive charge of one of the protons on the nucleus. So it results in an atom with a nucleus of 4 nucleons and one muon (in low orbit) with +1 charge and one electron (in normal orbit) with -1 charge.

      Chemically (i.e. under electroweak theory) this behaves like hydrogen (+1 charge nucleus and a -1 charge electron shell)

      I don't

  • Cross-dressing atoms? You sicko liberals should be ashamed of yourselves!

  • Can you combine two of these muon hyrdogens with an oxygen atom to create extra heavy water?
  • Helium is much larger than Hydrogen. Would the bond angles be the same? Would the physical shape of the Helium atom allow it to attach to carbon chains and hexane/benzene structures to make pseudo-hydrocarbons?
  • While the "orbital" model may be useful for simple chemistry and some other work, electrons do not "orbit" the nucleus. This has been known for some 70-odd years. Time to get with the program.
  • By the way... I think the commentator in the attached perspective ( gets the born-oppenheimer approximation wrong... he states that :

    "The BO approximation makes possible the practical application of quantum mechanics to all of molecular science. As the arrangement of the nuclei changes, the BO approximation postulates that the electrons will remain in a particular quantum state. "

    When the BO approximation is the opposite : The atoms DONT move while the e

    • "As the arrangement of the nuclei changes, the BO approximation postulates that the electrons will remain in a particular quantum state. " is an entirely correct description.

      The BO approximation does not assume that the nuclei are completely stationary. What you're talking about with that is what's called a clamped-nuclei Hamiltonian.

      You stated the rationale behind the BO-approximation without understanding it. Because of the difference in mass, the nuclei are practically stationary relative the elect

  • And for my next trick, making lead into gold.
  • Helium behaves as it does (as an inert gas) because its outer shell is filled. The Pauli exclusion principle means that you can't force another electron into the same place, so an He+ ion would have its extra electron in a higher energy level and very loosely attached. But the Pauli exclusion principle doesn't apply if you have one electron and one muon; the muon's average position is much closer to the nucleus (since the muon is about 200 times heavier), shielding the positive charge of the nucleus. So to
  • Wow. For the first time I'm actually a little bit freaked out by a science story. They're disassembling an atom and making it behave like a different kind of atom? That's spooky. Here's why this spooks me: This strongly reminds me of the fictional substance "ice-nine" in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which was just a slightly "modified" form of water that was solid at room temperature. It had the unfortunate attribute that it would change any normal water into ice-nine on contact, thus causing a worldwide catacl

  • wouldn't it be nice if this would be more powerful than standard liquid hydrogen + liquid oxygen for rocket fuel? It probably isnt but one can dream.
    • Unfortunately muons have a mean lifetime of 2.2 microseconds. So better hurry up.

      "Does this muon make my butt look fat?

  • by RedBear ( 207369 ) <redbear@[ ] ['red' in gap]> on Monday January 31, 2011 @05:41AM (#35054816) Homepage

    Wow. For the first time I'm actually a little bit freaked out by a science story. They're disassembling an atom and making it behave like a different kind of atom? That's spooky. Here's why this spooks me: This strongly reminds me of the fictional substance "ice-nine" in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which was just a slightly "modified" form of water that was solid at room temperature. It had the unfortunate attribute that it would change any normal water into ice-nine on contact, thus causing a worldwide cataclysm when released into the wild. Until this moment I was unable to really picture how one could "modify" a simple molecule like H2O and wind up with something that was still H2O and thus still be able to call it "water". This technique would make that possible.

    I hope and pray (to the mythical God that I don't even believe in) that these people messing with the basic structure of atoms know what they're doing. I've never put any stock in silly ideas like the LHC creating black holes or any of that other nonsense people come up with, but this particular story gives me the willies. Helium is one step away from hydrogen. What if they did something similar to a hydrogen atom and it turned out to be able to create new copies of itself just by somehow interacting with normal hydrogen molecules? To those who would immediately say "pish tosh" without thinking about the implications, I'd have to respond by asking how do we know such a thing can't happen when we go around mucking with the very nature of an atom's structure? It's one thing to go around breaking down molecules into their component atoms, or atoms into their component sub-atomic particles, but I think it may be a whole different ball game to go around creating hybrid atoms (and thus hybrid elements) with possibly unknown or unknowable interactions with other atoms/elements.

    Or maybe I'm being silly and the scientists know exactly what they're doing. Riiiiiight...

    I'll be even more spooked if I find out this sort of thing can't happen in nature. If they're managing to artificially create something that has never been able to exist in the entire history of the universe, it may be time to pull a Peter Griffin, i.e., "WHOA, WHOA, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whooaaa... Are you sure your math is right and you're not gonna destroy the universe?"

    Scientists: "Yes."

    Peter: "OK. Nevermind."

    Scientists: "Whoops!"

    Universe: "BOOOOM!!!"

    P.S. The new Slashdot is broken. Good job guys. I tried to post this comment once already and it never showed up, but it's listed in the sidebar of my comment page and it wouldn't let me repost the same comment. Even though the link doesn't exist.

  • I.e. would this become water? I fear producing enough to actually test this theory might be difficult and expensive, but maybe someone knows the theoretical side (not just guessing, I can do that, myself).

  • Other then tricking one atom to accept another in their group....what good or bad can come from this....i still do not see the importance...

The IBM 2250 is impressive ... if you compare it with a system selling for a tenth its price. -- D. Cohen