Room Temperature Superconductor Could Lead to Exotic Gadgets

Can we finally get real hoverboards?

Key Takeaways

  • Scientists report they have accomplished their long-sought goal of creating a material that works as a superconductor at room temperature.
  • Room temperature superconductors could be used in many forms of consumer electronics, transportation, and other technologies.
  • The discovery will not have any immediate practical applications due to the difficult manufacturing process, experts say.
Superconductivity, purple glow, tweezers, woman's face in background
Bruce Ando / Getty Images 

The long-sought goal of finding a superconductor that works at room temperature has been achieved, showing promise for future applications in personal electronics and other technologies, researchers say. 

Scientists say they have created a material that can conduct electricity without resistance at 58 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a paper published last week. If confirmed, the new material could be a major advance over previous findings that found superconductivity only at temperatures well below zero degrees. While obstacles remain, the discovery could lead to exotic new technologies, experts say. 

"It’s possible that superconductors could revolutionize transportation with levitation and a superconducting grid," Ashkan Salamat, a co-author of the paper, and a condensed matter physicist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said in a phone interview. "We could miniaturize devices and we could think about miniaturizing batteries or eliminating batteries. The blue sky thinking is endless."

Hoverboarding Through Superconductors?

Possible uses for this kind of material are nearly endless. Superconducting circuits at room temperature "would not lose energy and can go without a need to be recharged," Shanti Deemyad, a physics professor at The University of Utah, said in an email interview. "In addition, we can use them in creating superconducting logic circuits that are much faster than what we currently have."

"We could miniaturize devices and we could think about miniaturizing batteries or eliminating batteries."

Scientists have been pursuing superconductors for more than a century because they hold great promise for all kinds of technologies. In normal wires, electrical resistance forms when electrons knock against the atoms that make up the metal. However, researchers proved in 1911 that, under the right conditions, materials can be fabricated that have no resistance. These were then termed "superconductors."

The effect that powers superconductors also produces an electric field that could allow vehicles to float over superconducting rails, Salamat said. Unfortunately, all the superconductors that have been discovered so far aren’t practical.

"The materials known to date need to be cooled by liquid nitrogen or helium to superconduct," Eva Zurek, a chemistry professor at the University at Buffalo, said in an email interview. "As a result, their applications are limited. Nonetheless, they are employed as superconducting magnets, in MRI machines, in superconducting power lines where energy is not lost to resistance, and in magnetic levitation trains." 

Not Coming to Best Buy Soon

The latest superconductor discovery comes with a big catch: the difficult process by which the material is created at enormous pressure means it can only be produced in tiny quantities. 

Carbon-sulfur and hydrogen are placed in a device and squeezed together at 40,000 atmospheres, Salamat said, adding "then we do a photochemical reaction so we shine a green light so they end up making this very complex, organic large framework system."

Superconductivity
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The biggest obstacle researchers face to make a more practical superconductor is reducing the pressures at which the material is produced, Zurek said. "When electricity was discovered we could not have foreseen all of its applications," he added. "Similarly, I think that a room temp superconductor will bring about applications that are completely revolutionary and unimaginable at the moment."

However, don’t expect the recently discovered superconductor to show up in your laptop, experts say.

"The materials known to date need to be cooled by liquid nitrogen or helium to superconduct. As a result, their applications are limited."

"In its current form, I cannot see a direct practical application for this material, but this is what we call proof of principle observation and a very robust measurement that can help us find high-temperature superconducting materials at more accessible pressures," Deemyad said. "If we can even lower the critical pressure by just an order of magnitude I can imagine many practical applications for them."

Salamat says his team is working on a superconductor that’s easier to produce. "We have another paper coming out in a month where we've got the second-highest temperature," he added. 

Until Salamat and his fellow researchers can make a superconductor that’s a little more practical, hoverboards won’t be hitting the stores. But the new research proves that scientists are getting closer to the day when superconductors could be a part of everyday life.