The search for a superconducting material at room temperature was one of the great holy grails in engineering and physics. The ability to move electricity from point A to B without resistance and thus without losses would fundamentally change human civilization. Unfortunately, every known superconductor to this day still required very cold temperatures. Today scientists announced that they had reached superconductivity at 15 degrees Celsius. While this is still a bit cold, you can hit 59F in a well air conditioned building. This is a real breakthrough, but it does not immediately pave the way for easy technology deployment.
At extremely low temperatures, the behavior of electrons changes through a material. At temperatures close to absolute zero, electrons that run through a material form what are known as Cooper pairs. Usually individual electrons ping-pong essentially through the ion lattice of the material through which they pass. Every time an electron collides with an ion in the lattice, it loses a tiny amount of energy. We call this loss resistance. When electrons are cooled to a sufficiently low temperature, they behave dramatically differently. Cooper pairs behave like a superfluid, which means they can flow through material with no underlying energy loss. Tests have shown that the current stored in a superconductor remains there as long as the material is in a superconducting state without any loss of energy.
There are still two problems between us and how to use this discovery more effectively. First, we’re not sure why this combination of elements even works. The research team used sulfur and carbon, then added hydrogen to form hydrogen sulfide (H.2S) and methane (CH4). These chemicals were placed on a diamond anvil and compressed, and then exposed to a green laser for several hours to break sulfur-sulfur bonds. That much is known. Unfortunately, determining the exact composition of the material has so far proven impossible. The diamond anvil prevents the use of X-rays, and existing technologies that can circumvent this problem are unable to locate hydrogen atoms in a lattice. The team’s efforts to characterize and understand its own discovery are ongoing.
If this discovery were added to this chart, it would be at the 288K mark. Image by PJRay, from Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0
The researchers also have a second urgent problem: around 2.5 M atmospheric pressure are required to achieve the superconducting effect. That’s about 75 percent of the pressure in Earth’s core, and it’s a bit difficult to replicate on planet Earth. If we were on Jupiter we would have a lot less problem duplicating that type of pressure, but that’s mainly because we would all be dead and we would have a lot less problem, period.
The importance of this work is that it proves that superconductors actually exist at room temperature. This new material is 50 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than any known superconductor, which would make it an impressive step forward even if we were still working with sub-zero temperatures. While the pressure required to achieve this operating condition makes practical use impossible, we now have a known good method of solving this problem. Where there is one, there could be more.
This discovery doesn’t solve the problem, but it is a fundamental and necessary piece of the puzzle.
Feature image by J. Adam Window / University of Rochester.
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