Hydrogen Atoms May Be Capable of Bonding With Literal Nothingness

A giant region of ionized hydrogen in the Triangulum Galaxy. NASA

We may have to rethink the distinction between something and nothing, after a mind-bending discovery that certain hydrogen atoms may be capable of bonding with supposedly empty space, reports New Scientist.

Normally, for an atom to make a bond, it needs another atom. It takes at least two to tango, so to speak. But researchers have developed a methodology that involves hydrogen atoms in an excited state — so-called Rydberg atoms — that may be capable of forming a bond all on their own, with literal nothingness.

This sounds, on the face of it, impossible, or at least some kind of violation of the laws of nature or logic. It's kind of like trying to imagine the sound of one hand clapping. That's what makes this discovery so utterly profound; it could forever change how we do chemistry, and might even have quantum mechanical implications.

Researchers are calling the spooky bonds "ghost bonds," and involve getting the single electron in a Rydberg atom to become fixed in a position as if it's bonded with another atom, but without another atom present. Rydberg atoms are elongated atoms characterized by a highly excited, distant electron, and it's this distance and unusual electron activity that make the ghost bonds possible.

The bonds are only estimated to last for a short period of time, but it's for long enough to have some intriguing applications.

"We predict it would live for several hundred microseconds, or even longer in a cold environment," said one of the researchers, Matthew Eiles from Purdue University in Indiana.

One application could be in the creation of quantum gates, or basic quantum circuits. It's also likely that the creation of ghost bonds will make it possible to create new chemical bonds that involve single atoms, without the need for their respective accomplices. There's no telling where this could lead.

For now, this is all theoretical. Researchers haven't actually created a ghost bond yet, but all the math checks out. The next step will be to achieve it in an actual lab setting. And then... who knows?

"I think it could actually be done," said Johannes Wilhelm Deiglmayr, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. "This would be really fun to see."