How new superconductors could improve your devices

Researchers have discovered a new superconductor that is relatively easy to manufacture. The new material could be used to improve memory and other devices. Independent laboratories have yet to confirm the discovery.

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A new superconducting material gives hope that the technology could work at much higher temperatures and allow the manufacture of improved electronic devices.

Researchers have discovered a material that can transmit electricity without resistance and conduct magnetic fields around the material. Unlike previous superconductors, the material can be manufactured at temperatures and pressures that could be practical for everyday use.

“Superconductors are already being used in some applications,” Case Western Reserve University physicist Harsh Mathur told Lifewire in an email interview. “For example, superconducting magnets are used in MRI, and the leading hardware element in quantum computers (like Google’s famous Sycamore computer) is a superconducting circuit element called a transmon. The need to cool circuits to near absolute zero is a major bottleneck preventing wider use of superconductors.”

get to zero

In the Nature article, the researchers said they used a nitrogen-doped lutetium hydride (NDLH), which becomes a superconductor at 69 degrees Fahrenheit and 10 kilobars (145,000 pounds per square inch, or psi) of pressure. While this pressure is still high considering sea level pressure is about 15 psi, it is within our current capabilities. Chip manufacturing, for example, uses materials that are held together by even higher internal chemical forces.

“A path to superconducting consumer electronics, power transmission lines, transportation, and significant magnetic confinement improvements for fusion is now a reality,” said Ranga Dias, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and physics at the University of Rochester, in a press release.

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The latest discovery is the culmination of more than a hundred years of searching for superconductors. Scientists sought the material because of the material’s valuable properties: the lack of electrical resistance and the fact that ejected magnetic fields surround the superconducting material.

Dias’ team produced the new material with a gas mixture of 99 percent hydrogen and one percent nitrogen. They place the mixture in a reaction chamber with lutetium and allow the components to react at 392 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three days.

Better devices through superconductors

The newly discovered material could enable faster and more efficient electronics using digital logic and memory technology that take advantage of superconductors.

“Superconducting power lines could drastically reduce the amount of energy lost in transmitting power plants to the homes, offices and factories they serve,” Mathur said. “As we move toward low-carbon energy sources, reducing electrical power transmission losses will become a priority.”

But Mathur said it’s likely the most critical applications are the ones we can’t anticipate. He cited the example of Michael Faraday, whose research led to the first electrical revolution in the 19th century, including the invention of electrical power generation and transmission.

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“The famous scientist is said to have replied: ‘What’s the use of a newborn baby?’ to the question of what use his discoveries might have in the future,” said Mathur. “The discovery of semiconductor devices in the 1940s changed the way we live today, but it would have been hard to have predicted GPS or streaming services or social media at the time.”

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Despite the excitement surrounding the recent discovery, observers have warned that the experiments need to be confirmed. The Rochester team was forced to withdraw an earlier paper announcing a similar discovery about superconductors after the results could not be verified.

Mathur also warned that room-temperature superconductivity has yet to be convincingly demonstrated, although some reproducible experiments have come close. “It’s difficult to predict how long it will take for the final breakthrough to occur,” he said.

He pointed out that the materials that become superconductive at high temperatures do so at high pressure. “So it will also be necessary to find a material that is superconducting at near normal ambient pressure,” he added. “So that’s the bad news. On the other hand, the good news is that advances in superconductivity research are having an impact on the technology even before room-temperature superconductivity is achieved.”

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