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Students from Cornell University, New York have, in a world-first, “succeeded in synthesizing the room-temperature superconductor” at ambient room pressure. In a scientific journal titled “The First Room-Temperature Ambient-Pressure Superconductor“, dated 22nd July 2023, authors Sukbae Lee, Ji-Hoon Kim, and Young-Wan Kwon confirm an easily replicable solution to the superconductivity problem. A scientific breakthrough that could put a quantum computer on your desk at home.
What’s the big deal? – Why we want a room-temperature superconductor
Every now and then, something seriously abstruse, niche, and or scientific will go viral on the internet. With enough excitement from a very select group of very nerdy individuals at the epicentre of the thing, word spreads outwards to those who know just enough about it to join them in their excitement – myself, for example. Try reading “What is ChatGPT – and what is it used for?” or “How to use ChatGPT on mobile” if you’re more interested in AI.
Sometimes it’s a new nature documentary, sometimes political legislation, or in this case one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of our generation.
That made your ears perk up, right? I sure hope so because, if peer-reviewed and corroborated, the implications include:
- Quantum computers in your house.
- Household battery technology with practically infinite shelf life.
- Saving 8% of global energy (100 TWh/yr in the US alone.)
- Affordable and widespread use of MagLev trains.
- Affordable and practical nuclear fusion.
- Ultra-efficient magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.
- Zero fans in your PC (They can’t all be that impressive.)
“There’s this effort in research to get superconducting at higher temperatures, so that you don’t have to cool anymore,” explains Ulrich Wiesner, a leading materials science and engineering professor at Cornell. “That would revolutionize everything. There’s a huge impetus to get that.” A high-temperature superconductor, while no panacea, would revolutionise many industries.
Has this been claimed before?
It’s worth maintaining a little scepticism, as this is not the first time this has been claimed. Published in 2020, the results of a study by Ranga Dias at the University of Rochester (also New York) and Ashkan Salamat (a physicist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas) claimed that a new material made of lutetium, hydrogen and nitrogen could achieve this result. The study has since been retracted from publication following scrutiny of the raw data provided.
How does a conventional superconductor work?
A superconductor, by definition, is a conductor with zero resistance. This means the electrons keep moving around the circuit indefinitely. An ambient superconductor is one that continues to operate under ambient conditions (temperature and pressure). None of the electrical components in your home or office are superconductors because current designs are prohibitively expensive, difficult to maintain, and unsuitable for home use (toddlers and liquid nitrogen do not mix).
Copper wire is a pretty good conductor, but certainly not super. Claims of 100% conductivity in copper are at best the result of a misleading scale comparing how alike copper is to copper (International annealed Copper Standard) and at worst lobbying. The truth is closer to 97%, and that depends on the purity of the metal.
How do we use superconductors today?
Current superconductor designs, to use Japans SCMagLev train as a practical example, use electromagnetism and liquid nitrogen or liquid helium to reduce the electrical resistance to practically zero. In the real world, true zero doesn’t often exist, but it’s close enough. Travelling at 603km/h compared to bullet trains which haven’t breached 350km/h, the magnetically levitating train uses liquid helium to cool a superconducting electromagnet to 4.5K (-268.65°C) which allows it to maintain a charge indefinitely.
This indefinite charge means the electromagnets do not require continuous power, and keeping them superconductive (while difficult) is more efficient than supplying the continuous power these powerful magnets would otherwise require. Layers of cryogenically cooled radiation shielding and a vacuum are employed to protect this critical component. Keeping it below the critical temperature of 9.2K is pivotal here.
Further electromagnets (no need for superconductivity this time) are placed within the guiderails, with alternating polarity in a linear fashion along the track. These electromagnets, specifically the opposing polarity between the track and the train, form the mechanism that causes the levitation, forward propulsion, and lateral stability – everything!
The room-temperature superconductor and your first quantum computer
Reductively, the claim here is that all you need is lead oxide, copper phosphate, a furnace and magnets to check that it worked. These are not particularly expensive, or difficult to transport or maintain in their useful state (unlike the supercooled requirement of existing designs).
The fundamental reason that this discovery works so well is still undergoing research. However, the results are clear. A specific material, heated and cooled in a specific fashion, then maintains superconductivity at room temp and ambient room pressure. Room temperature, by the way, is what they mean by high-temperature superconductivity because up until now sub zero was the assumed standard.
This material, a hydride based recipe, follows the research of Mikhail Eremets, an experimental physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, where Mikhail and colleagues reported the first superconducting hydride but at relatively low pressures (where ambient room conditions are considered high pressures).
How long will it be before this material is used in household computers? That remains nothing but optimistic speculation. The important thing is that we now have all the building blocks of a household quantum computer. Quantum PC Guide is just around the corner, and I hope to be following up this article article later this year, reporting on advancements in this particular field.
Now, where did I put my copy of Quantum Computing for Dummies?