Room-temperature superconductors — materials that conduct electricity with zero resistance without needing special cooling — are the sort of technological miracle that could upend literally daily life.
According to a report in the MIT Technology Review, they could revolutionize the electric grid and enable levitating trains, among many other potential applications.
Meanwhile, an international team led by Artem R. Oganov, a Professor at Skoltech (Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology) and MISIS, and Dr. Ivan Troyan from the Institute of Crystallography of RAS, both located in Moscow, performed theoretical and experimental research on a new high-temperature superconductor, yttrium hydride (YH6).
Their findings were published in the journal Advanced Materials.
Highlighted in a report by SciTechDaily.com, yttrium hydrides rank among the three highest-temperature superconductors known to date.
The leader among the three is a material with an unknown S-C-H composition and superconductivity at 288 Kelvin, which is followed by lanthanum hydride, LaH10, superconducting at temperatures up to 259 K, and, finally, yttrium hydrides, YH6 and YH9, with maximum superconductivity temperatures of 224 K and 243 K, respectively.
The superconductivity of YH6 was predicted by Chinese scientists in 2015.
All of these hydrides reach their maximum superconductivity temperatures at very high pressures: 2.7 million atmospheres for S-C-H and about 1.4-1.7 million atmospheres for LaH10 and YH6, SciTechDaily reported.
Unfortunately, the high pressure requirement remains a major roadblock for commercial production in quantity.
“Until 2015, 138 K (or 166 K under pressure) was the record of high-temperature superconductivity,” says Dmitry Semenok, a co-author of the paper and a PhD student at Skoltech.
“Room-temperature superconductivity, which would have been laughable just five years ago, has become a reality.
“Right now, the whole point is to attain room-temperature superconductivity at lower pressures.”
When studying new materials, chemists start by making theoretical predictions and then testing new material in practice, SciTechDaily reported.
“First, we look at the bigger picture and study a multitude of different materials on the computer. This makes things much faster. More detailed calculations follow the initial screening,” Oganov said.
“Sorting through fifty or a hundred materials takes about a year, while an experiment with a single material of particular interest may last a year or two.”
Superconductivity — in which electrons flow through a material without resistance — sounds impossible at first blush, MIT Tech Review reported.
It’s as though one could drive at high speed through a congested city center, never hitting a traffic light.
But in 1911, Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes found that mercury becomes a superconductor when cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero (about -460 °F, or -273 °C). He soon observed the phenomenon in other metals like tin and lead.
For many decades afterwards, superconductivity was created only at extremely low temperatures.
Then, in late 1986 and early 1987, a group of researchers at IBM’s Zurich laboratory found that certain ceramic oxides can be superconductors at temperatures as high as 92 K—crucially, over the boiling temperature of liquid nitrogen, which is 77 K.
This transformed the study of superconductivity, and its applications in things like hospital MRIs, because liquid nitrogen is cheap and easy to handle.
Then, came a breakthrough.
In October 2020, researchers from the University of Rochester became the first to achieve room-temperature superconductivity, Interesting Engineering reported.
Time magazine later wrote: “Let’s be clear: hoverboards, magnetic levitation trains and resistance-free power lines are not coming this year or next. But thanks to Ranga Dias [University of Rochester lead researcher], they’re closer than they ever were.”
Superconducting materials promise a whole host of technological applications and advances related to quantum computing, levitating trains and even the concept of “lunar archiving.”
Scientists have proposed a solar-powered “Lunar Ark” to act as a “modern global insurance policy” for humanity.
The concept would store cryogenically frozen seed, spore, sperm, and egg samples from 6.7 million Earth species.
At temperatures of -25° Celsius (-15° F), the team explained that the Moon provides ideal conditions for storing samples that need to stay very cold for long periods of time.
Ergo, if we do blow each other to kingdom come with a nuclear war, or get hit with an asteroid, at least we’ll have the Ark to start the whole dysfunctional ball rolling.
Meantime, the ways in which electricity is generated, transmitted, and distributed would be fundamentally transformed by cheap and effective room-temperature superconductors bigger than a few millionths of a meter, MIT Tech Review reported.
For example, about 5% of the electricity generated in the US is lost in transmission and distribution. Eliminating this loss would, for starters, save billions of dollars and have a significant climate impact.
But room-temperature superconductors wouldn’t just change the system we have — they’d enable a whole new system, MIT Tech Review reported.
Transformers, which are crucial to the electric grid, could be made smaller, cheaper, and more efficient. So too could electric motors and generators.
Superconducting energy storage is currently used to smooth out short-term fluctuations in the electric grid, but it still remains relatively niche because it takes a lot of energy to keep superconductors cold, MIT Tech Review reported.
Room-temperature superconductors, especially if they could be engineered to withstand strong magnetic fields, might serve as very efficient way to store larger amounts of energy for longer periods of time, making renewable but intermittent energy sources like wind turbines or solar cells more effective.
Superconductors are of great potential importance in the nascent field of quantum computing, too, MIT Tech Review reported.
Superconducting qubits are already the basis of some of the world’s most powerful quantum computers.
Being able to make such qubits without having to cool them down would not only make quantum computers simpler, smaller, and cheaper, but could lead to more rapid progress in creating systems of many qubits, depending on the exact properties of the superconductors that are created.