During the last 50 years, physicists made remarkable progress in creating materials that would not exist on Earth without scientists. Custom designed materials that react to temperature, vibrations, humidity or electric currents, absorb or reflect light in desired ways, absorb or repel liquids where needed, stick or don’t stick, hopefully where you want them, are but a few examples.
The maybe most important development in our ability to create new materials have been a large variety of semi-conductors that are instrumental to many now common gadgets, and high temperature superconductivity though, at typically 70 K, the temperatures at which these materials become superconducting is “high” only compared to outer space (or to a physicist who spent too many of his days with liquid Helium).
The most amazing new developements are graphene nano-structures, light yet strong, thin yet impermeable, with high thermal conductivity (possibly directed), high conductivity, and large capacity for hydrogen storage. Nanotechnology has also many potential medical applications that are currently being explored, but enough for now with the praise of modern science.
With that in mind, let us fast forward in time, into the unknown. Imagine our understanding and technical expertise would allow us to do what we do today with atoms to the constituents of atomic nuclei (the protons and neutrons, collectively called “nucleons”). Imagine we could build structures of nucleons that do not occur in nature, structures that are to nuclei what molecules are to atoms. Let us call them “molecei.”
Humans have already brought into existence formations of nucleons that do not occur in nature. By colliding very heavy nuclei, particle physicists have created ever heavier elements. Most recently, the super-heavy elements darmstadtium (Ds), roentgenium (Rg) and copernicium (Cn) with atomic number 110, 111 and 112 have been added to the periodic table. For practical purposes however, these nuclei are not particularly useful because they are very short-lived. It has long been conjectured however, that at even higher atomic numbers, the lifetimes might increase again.
With today’s knowledge of the forces acting in atomic nuclei, and with presently existing technology, it is not possible to create molecei, and maybe they are fundamentally not possible. But if you had asked alchemists 400 years ago what they thought about wires with memory, aerogel, liquid crystals, and ferrofluids, they’d have declared it either magic or impossible. As history has demonstrated over and over again, even experts often fail to properly distinguish the possible from the impossible. So let us be daring, and leave behind the academic carefulness for a moment to speculate what we could do with molecei.
If a positively charged nucleus has a difficult shape, as it would be with molecei, strange and uncommon electron orbits would be the consequence. Electrons might be very loosely bound or highly degenerate, allowing for astonishing optical and electric properties, possibly including superconductivity at room temperature.
The more complicated the shape of a molecei, the more excitations it would have, which would dramatically affect the ability of phonons to propagate. This could cause a medium doted with molecei to have acoustic, and thermal properties the world has never seen, from perfect soundproofing to liquids with enormous heat capacity.
The maybe most exciting possibility is that suitably designed molecei might enable interactions between atomic nuclei that normally require extreme temperatures or densities. Molecei could act as catalysts for nuclear reactions much like molecules can act as catalysts for chemical reactions; it is the old dream of cold nuclear fusion that could solve all our energy problems – provided it does not take more energy to produce the molecei to begin with.
Finally, molecei would be the next step in our ability to design miniature tools and to unravel nature’s secrets on even smaller distances.