Like perpetual motion, superconductivity—transmitting electricity without losing any to resistance or “friction” in the wires that carry it—is one of science’s alluring, impossible goals: it would save billions of dollars worth of power as well as vast amounts of fuel burned to no purpose at generating plants.
Discovered in 1911, the phenomenon of superconductivity was only possible at temperatures a few degrees above absolute zero.
Since then, researchers have gradually nudged the temperature higher; in 2018, a group including scientists at Germany’s Max Planck Institute created a material combining hydrogen and the heavy metal lanthanum that superconducted at about -9°F—but it only worked at pressures equivalent to 22 million pounds per square inch.
The result pushed superconductivity hunters to focus on hydrides—compounds of hydrogen and metals.
Now physicists at the University of Rochester have combined carbon, hydrogen, and sulfur to create a material that, they say, superconducts at around 56°F—essentially room temperature, even if a chilly room.
The research group also claims that theoretical calculations indicate their material could, under certain reasonable conditions, superconduct at ambient pressures.
Several scientists experienced in the quest for superconductivity have dismissed the Rochester group’s results.
Still, the team has filed patents and created a company to commercialize their technology—if it can be shown to work.
TRENDPOST: The amount of electricity lost as it travels through cables and wires can be as much as 2 percent per mile. Even the electricity wasted as heat in the world’s computers is substantial.
The allure of being able to end that waste, as well as to claim bragging rights to one of science’s greatest achievements, will continue to draw creative researchers (“New ‘Twistronics’ Graphene is Superconductor,” Trends Journal, 1 December 2020) until someone finds a way to achieve it at reasonable temperatures and pressures.
Progress has been rapid over the past 10 years; waste-free electricity at room temperatures and pressures could be reached this decade.