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SUPERCONDUCTORS Rochester researchers create a room-temperature superconductor

Author / Editor: Luke James / Johanna Erbacher

Following decades of research, engineers and scientists at the University of Rochester have reportedly achieved the long-sought goal that could ‘break down barriers and open the door to many potential applications.’

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Currently, extreme cold is required to achieve superconductivity, as seen in the above photo from Dias’s lab. In the photo, a magnet can be seen floating above a superconductor cooled with liquid nitrogen.
Currently, extreme cold is required to achieve superconductivity, as seen in the above photo from Dias’s lab. In the photo, a magnet can be seen floating above a superconductor cooled with liquid nitrogen.
(Source: Adam Fenster, University of Rochester)

For decades now, scientists have fantasized about developing a material that could effortlessly carry electrical charges with zero resistance at everyday temperatures, something that would save a huge amount of energy and be revolutionary for modern technology in virtually all fields and applications—this material is known as a superconductor.

Although scientists have experimented with superconductors for over a century, there’s one major challenge to them: they need to be kept at extremely cold temperatures to work, sometimes approaching absolute zero (around minus 273 degrees Celsius). This adds a layer of complexity and inefficiency, leading scientists to try and find ways to produce superconductivity at the normal temperatures we experience in daily life.

Now, as reported in the journal Nature, a team of researchers announced in mid-October that they have done just that: They have created a superconductor that works at 58 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius). While there is still a lot of work to be done and the material is far from ready for use in practical applications, the achievement of Ranga Dias’ Rochester lab cannot be understated; it’s a huge leap forward. Indeed, Dias himself calls developing room-temperature superconductors the “holy grail” of modern electronics.

‘A very robust study’

The researchers created the room temperature superconductor by compressing simple molecule solids - carbon and sulfur - with hydrogen at extremely high pressures to photochemically synthesize simple organic-derived carbonaceous sulfur hydride in a diamond anvil cell, a research device that’s used to examine minute amounts of materials under extremely high pressures.

The carbonaceous sulfur hydride demonstrated superconductivity at roughly 58 degrees Fahrenheit and a pressure of roughly 39 million pounds per square inch (psi).

“Because of the limits of low temperature, materials with such extraordinary properties have not quite transformed the world in the way that many might have imagined. However, our discovery will break down these barriers and open the door to many potential applications,” says Dias.

Although the room temperature superconductor has so far only been produced in minute quantities under extreme pressures, the researchers hope that with further experimentation they’ll be able to devise a variation of the material that will stay as a superconductor in the absence of such extreme pressure. According to Dias, they hope to bring the pressure to “almost ambient pressure, to have an actual application,

Shanti Deemyad, a University of Utah physics professor, who was not involved in this work, said, “It’s a very robust study, very beautifully done.”

A superconducting society?

It’s hard to ignore the significance of Dias’s team’s work when you consider some of the applications where superconducting materials could make a huge difference.

Imagine power grids that are able to transmit electricity without losing hundreds of millions of megawatt hours (MWh) to resistance, new ways to innovate in transportation such as levitating trains, and faster, more efficient electronics for digital logic and memory device technology which would completely transform markets like consumer electronics.

As Ashkan Salamat, co-author of the study, put it, “with this kind of technology, you can take society into a superconducting society where you’ll never need things like batteries again,”

To progress this work, Dias and Salamat have started a new company, ‘Unearthly Materials’, to find a path to room temperature superconductors that can be produced at ambient pressure and at scale. In the meantime, all we can do is wait.

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