The internet just went on a wild quest that could result in floating trains and cheap electric cars

By | August 11, 2023

  • The internet went wild over reports that researchers discovered a superconductor at room temperature.
  • It then embarked on a huge public experiment to replicate the results.

It’s been a wild few weeks for the global scientific community, which was briefly, yet gloriously fascinated by what looked like a piece of rock.

In late July, researchers in South Korea unveiled a rock-like material no bigger than a small shard of glass, called LK-99, and declared it the world’s first superconductor at room temperature and ambient pressure.

In its most basic sense, a superconductor describes any material with properties that make electrical resistance—a measure of how well something resists the flow of electricity—essentially non-existent.

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Resistance means that we basically waste electricity when we use something that requires power. Discovering a superconductor at room temperature would end this inefficiency, turn science fiction into reality, and completely change the way humans live.

Niladri Banerjee, an associate professor in the Department of Physics at Imperial College London, told Insider that at the atomic level, this drop in resistance occurs when negatively charged electrons, which would normally repel each other, bond to form pairs “under very special circumstances.” This bond creates stability that prevents the kind of dispersion that would normally cause resistance.

The conditions for achieving this are quite impractical.

“They form at very low temperatures,” Banerjee said. “If you increase the temperature, thermal disruption—all the wiggling of atoms and electrons—causes the pairs to break.”

In the case of a metal like niobium, which is used as a superconductor today, it requires a temperature of about -263 degrees Celsius to break electrical resistance.

So when the LK-99 results were posted on arXiv, an open repository for research papers, scientists around the world expressed both disbelief and euphoria at the world-changing implications.

Much of the ensuing drama derives from the fact that the claims were not peer-reviewed prior to publication, meaning they need to be replicated before anyone can get really excited. Knowing this, a host of professionals and armchair researchers leapt into action in a huge internet-wide and feverishly public experiment.

Unfortunately, in the less than 30 days since the paper dropped like a bombshell, their findings suggest it was a dud.

In a thread on X, Michael Fuhrer, Professor at the School of Physics at Monash University in Australiasaid the original paper served its purpose, even if it led researchers to reveal flaws in the research.

“The scientists who reported LK-99 now know exactly what questions need to be addressed to produce compelling evidence for superconductivity…..which will move science faster if there is anything to be found,” he said.

That’s an “if” too big to ignore, though Banerjee says there are some caveats: A room-temperature superconductor alone won’t accelerate technological progress.

That said, a future discovery would make, in Banerjee’s words, “one of the biggest breakthroughs in physics of the last century.”

This is how a superconductor at room temperature can change everything:

A revolution in the medical industry

MRI machines currently rely on liquid helium coolant to stay cool enough to operate.simonkr/Getty Images

MRI scans are an important tool in a doctor’s assessment of a patient, with their powerful magnets and radio waves capable of producing incredibly detailed images of the inside of a human body. Unfortunately, they also cost a lot of money.

It is not uncommon for MRI machines to cost over $1 million. With a room-temperature superconductor, that price could drop.

Massoud Pedram, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Southern California, says it will eliminate the need for liquid helium coolant, an “expensive and scarce” material used to keep machines cool enough to operate. .

Banerjee says this heat often comes because “in MRI, you need a big magnetic field” at high pressure—something that comes from wrapping a copper wire into multiple coils and feeding it a high current. To partially overcome that problem, he says, you could have “superconductors that wrap around” instead, since a large current can pass through them without any “heat dissipation.”

Maglev took everywhere

A Maglev train in Shanghai, China.Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Shanghai’s 260 mph-plus maglev, a high-speed train that connects Pudong International Airport to the rest of the city while hovering above the tracks, is an engineering feat that few have been able to emulate.

In a world of futuristic superconductors, that may no longer be the case. By drastically reducing the cost of electricity, maglev trains would instantly become more economically viable in other parts of the world, as they would be able to travel longer distances at a fraction of the cost.

A world of fusion energy

Operators inspect the National Ignition Facility target chamber where the fusion ignition experiments take place.Jason Laurea/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

For its proponents, fusion holds the promise of limitless clean energy—something that would completely change the way scientists and policymakers approach the existential challenge of the climate crisis.

In 2020, researchers from MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, as well as spinout startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems, found a way to use high-temperature superconductor “cable technology” to generate the strong magnetic fields needed to contain plasma generated in fusion reactions.

A superconductor at room temperature would go a step further in helping to create these fields under normal conditions.

Electric cars made cheaper

Tesla’s chargerRobert Knopes/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Elon Musk has said that his big ambition at Tesla is to make electric cars much more affordable for everyone. With superconductors at room temperature, electric cars may take a step closer to providing low-cost battery-powered cars.

As TechCrunch reports, the windings in EV motors can be significantly reduced while having the potential to minimize charging time and reduce the heat that can cause battery fires.

Banerjee said that, as in other areas, replacing copper and other conductive wires in electric cars with a superconductor could lead to “zero dissipation or very very low dissipation” of heat.

Quantum computers inch closer

Quantum computing microchip.Universal Quantum

Heralded as the computers of the future, quantum computers operate in a realm of qubits rather than bits of zeros and ones as today’s computers do. These qubits potentially offer a scale of computing exponentially more powerful than current systems.

They remain a distant promise at commercial scale for several reasons, not least because scaling qubits generate all kinds of noise and heat that lead to errors. It forces machines to be kept at extremely cold temperatures.

This is where room-temperature superconductors could one day step in. By getting rid of electrical waste, they would, in theory, drastically reduce these computers’ energy needs and heat, paving the way for their use in everything from the financial system to machine learning.

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