Superconductor news and why you should be excited

Superconductivity was discovered more than 100 years ago. Electricity can be carried on a wire with exactly zero resistance. Think of hundreds of thousands of miles of wires in this country alone, with huge transformers that ramp up the voltage to hundreds of thousands of volts in order to minimize losses in the wire (which are inversely proportional to voltage) — and still transmission losses are over 20% between the power plant and your home.

The catch has always been that superconductivity only happens at very low temperatures — so low that the metal must be bathed in liquid helium, just a few degrees above absolute zero. Not so practical.

Then, in 1986, an exotic material was manufactured that conducted at temperatures that were low but not ultra-low. We’re talking in the neighborhood of 100 degrees above absolute zero, which is still deep in negative territory by usual standards. Liquid nitrogen could be used in place of liquid helium. Liquid nitrogen is a much more common and cheaper material, easier to make and much easier to store; and our atmosphere has a limitless supply of nitrogen, whereas helium is rare and expensive.

Liquid nitrogen is cheap enough, but the alloys that conduct at liquid nitrogen temperature are difficult to manufacture and to shape into wires, and they contain rare earths. So there have been no practical applications. The biggest magnets in the world, using huge currents that require superconductivity, are buried under the Alps at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). These still use conventional liquid helium superconductors, though there is perpetual talk about switching them over to “high-temperature” superconductors, where “high temperature” means liquid nitrogen.

The news

Just this Tuesday, a physicist from University of Rochester spoke at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society, where he announced he had a material that superconducts at room temperature — no refrigeration needed. Wednesday, their paper appeared in Nature.

There are lots of caveats.

  • The superconducting material is made from lutetium. If you haven’t heard of lutetium, I can’t blame you. It’s hard to find, and costs three times as much as gold.
  • Its superconductivity depends on an enormous pressure, available routinely in physics labs but not commercially practical.
  • About half the physicists who look at the data are not convinced that the Rochester lab is really seeing superconductivity.
  • …because, sadly, the Rochester group has had a controversial history with accusations of fraudulent scientific claims.

Still, it’s an exciting time. If the discovery pans out, it’s a whole new class of materials in a whole new temperature range. This announcement is sure to lead to new lines of research and a spate of new discoveries. Stay tuned.

Article in Quanta Magazine

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