How New Superconductors Could Make Your Gadgets Better

Zero electrical resistance material might lead to breakthroughs

  • Researchers have discovered a new superconductor that can be made with relative ease.
  • The new material could be used to improve memory and other gadgets. 
  • Independent labs must still confirm the discovery.
A microprocessor on a wafer.

narawon / Getty Images

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

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

“Superconductors are already used in some applications,” physicist Harsh Mathur of Case Western Reserve University, told Lifewire in an email interview. “For example, superconducting magnets are used in MRI, and the leading hardware element in quantum computers (such as the famous Sycamore computer made by Google) is a superconducting circuit element called a transmon. The need to cool the circuits to close to absolute zero is a major bottleneck that keeps superconductors from being more widely used.” 

Getting to Zero

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

"A pathway to superconducting consumer electronics, energy transfer lines, transportation, and significant improvements of magnetic confinement for fusion are now a reality," Ranga Dias, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and physics at the University of Rochester, said in a news release.

The recent discovery is the culmination of a more than a century-long search for superconductors. Scientists have been seeking the material because of the material's valuable properties: an absence of electrical resistance and the fact that magnetic fields that are expelled pass around the superconducting material. 

Dias's team created the new material using a gas mixture of 99 percent hydrogen and one percent nitrogen. They put the mixture in a reaction chamber with lutetium and let the components react for two to three days at 392 degrees Fahrenheit.

Better Gadgets Through Superconductors

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

"Superconducting power lines might drastically cut the amount of energy that is lost in transmission from power plants to the homes, offices, and factories that they power," Mathur said. "As we move towards low carbon energy sources, cutting transmission losses of electrical energy is going to become a priority."

But Mathur said that it is likely that the most critical applications are ones that we cannot foresee. He pointed to the example of Michael Faraday, whose research in the 19th century led to the first electric revolution, including the invention of electrical power generation and transmission.

Magnet floating above a superconductor.

Mark Garlick / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

"The famed scientist is supposed to have replied, 'of what use is a newborn baby?' when asked what use his discoveries might have in the future," Mathur said. "The discovery of the semiconductor devices in the 1940s changed the way we live now, but it would have been hard to foresee GPS or streaming services or social media at that time."

Despite the excitement around the recent discovery, observers cautioned that the experiments must be confirmed. The Rochester team had to retract a previous paper announcing a similar discovery about superconductors after the results could not be verified. 

Mathur also cautioned that room temperature superconductivity had yet to be convincingly demonstrated though some reproducible experiments have come close. "It is difficult to forecast how long it will take for the final breakthrough to occur," he said. 

He pointed out that the materials that superconduct at high temperatures do so at high pressure. "So it will also be necessary to find a material that superconducts at close to normal ambient pressure," he added. "So that is the bad news. On the other hand, the good news is that advances in superconductivity research are already impacting technology even before room-temperature superconductivity is attained."

Was this page helpful?