Caveat Super...


A diamond anvil is used to put superconducting materials under high pressure. Credit: J. Adam Fenster/University of Rochester

Topics: Applied Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, Materials Science, Superconductors

Will a possible breakthrough for room-temperature superconducting materials hold up to scrutiny?

This week researchers claimed to have discovered a superconducting material that can shuttle electricity with no loss of energy under near-real-world conditions. But drama and controversy behind the scenes have many worried that the breakthrough may not hold up to scientific scrutiny.

“If you were to find a room-temperature, room-pressure superconductor, you’d have a completely new host of technologies that would occur—that we haven’t even begun to dream about,” says Eva Zurek, a computational chemist at the University at Buffalo, who was not involved in the new study. “This could be a real game changer if it turns out to be correct.”

Scientists have been studying superconductors for more than a century. By carrying electricity without shedding energy in the form of heat, these materials could make it possible to create incredibly efficient power lines and electronics that never overheat. Superconductors also repel magnetic fields. This property lets researchers levitate magnets over a superconducting material as a fun experiment—and it could also lead to more efficient high-speed maglev trains. Additionally, these materials could produce super strong magnets for use in wind turbines, portable magnetic resonance imaging machines, or even nuclear fusion power plants.

The only superconducting materials previously discovered require extreme conditions to function, which makes them impractical for many real-world applications. The first known superconductors had to be cooled with liquid helium to temperatures only a few degrees above absolute zero. In the 1980s, researchers found superconductivity in a category of materials called cuprates, which work at higher temperatures yet still require cooling with liquid nitrogen. Since 2015 scientists have measured room-temperature superconductive behavior in hydrogen-rich materials called hydrides. but they have to be pressed in a sophisticated viselike instrument called a diamond anvil cell until they reach a pressure of about a quarter to half of that found near the center of Earth.

The new material, called nitrogen-doped lutetium hydride, is a blend of hydrogen, the rare-earth metal lutetium, and nitrogen. Although this material also relies on a diamond anvil cell, the study found that it begins exhibiting superconductive behavior at a pressure of about 10,000 atmospheres—roughly 100 times lower than the pressures that other hydrides require. The new material is “much closer to ambient pressure than previous materials,” says David Ceperley, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the new study. He also notes that the material remains stable when stored at a room pressure of one atmosphere. “Previous stuff was only stable at a million atmospheres, so you couldn’t really take it out of the diamond anvil” cell, he says. “The fact that it’s stable at one atmosphere of pressure also means that it’d be easier to manufacture.”

Controversy Surrounds Blockbuster Superconductivity Claim, Sophie Bushwick, Scientific American

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