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New Breakthrough in Quest for Room-Temperature Superconductor

Room-temperature superconductors have remained a pipe dream for a long time. Now, a group of physicists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and the University of Rochester has made a major breakthrough in this field, and refers this as the “holy grail” of energy efficiency.

UNLV physicist Ashkan Salamat (above), along with colleague Ranga Dias, assistant professor of physics and mechanical engineering at the University of Rochester, established room-temperature superconductivity in a diamond anvil cell - a small, handheld, and commonly used research device that enables the compression of tiny materials to extreme pressures. The phenomena, reported today as the cover story in the journal Nature has implications for how energy is stored and transmitted. Image Credit: Josh Hawkins/University of Nevada, Las Vegas Photo Services.

The team was headed by Ranga Dias, a physicist from the University of Rochester, in association with Ashkan Salamat, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at UNLV. The researchers successfully established room-temperature superconductivity in a diamond anvil cell, that is, a tiny, portable, and oft-used research device that allows tiny materials to be compressed to extreme pressures—pressures that can be found only at the core of the Earth.

Although this phenomenon visualized by the researchers and recently reported as the cover story in the Nature journal is still at the fundamental level, or at an early stage, the finding holds implications for how energy is preserved and transmitted.

In the days to come, the discovery may even change how goods and people are transported, how day-to-day technological devices—ranging from MRI machines and laptops—are powered, and how the entire society could operate years into the forthcoming days.

It’s a revolutionary game changer. The discovery is new, and the technology is in its infancy and a vision of tomorrow, but the possibilities are endless. This could revolutionize the energy grid, and change every device that’s electronically driven.

Ashkan Salamat, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Salamat heads the Nevada Extreme Conditions Lab at UNLV—a recently established, multidisciplinary team that investigates fundamental experimental, engineering, and computational issues of materials under extreme pressure.

Superconductivity happens to be an extraordinary quantum phenomenon because its hallmark characteristics include zero resistance electrical flow and the expulsion of magnetic fields, which means the energy current traveling via a circuit is conducted perfectly and infinitely, without any power loss.

Superconductivity was initially observed in 1911, and since then, investigators have visualized superconductivity only at extremely low temperatures—that is, temperatures less than a few degrees of absolute zero, (–273 °C), which would make practical and intensive applications impossible.

But in 1968, investigators estimated that metallic hydrogen—which is accessed at extremely high pressures—might be the major ingredient to identifying superconductivity at or above room temperature.

Because of the limits of low temperature, materials with such extraordinary properties have not quite transformed the world in the way that many might have imagined. However, our discovery will break down these barriers and open the door to many potential applications,” Dias stated in a release from the University of Rochester.

In an attempt to solve the century-old issue, the researchers worked in Dias’ laboratory at the University of Rochester to chemically produce hydrogen.

Similar to a materials search engine, Salamat and Dias utilized the diamond anvil cell to scan through pressure and temperature space to identify the right combination that would fuel carbon-sulfur hydrogen initially into a metallic state, and then further drive it into a superconducting state at room temperature.

Salamat observed that the U.S. energy grid, which is composed of metallic cables, loses around $20 billion every year to dissipating current.

Although a metal-like copper displays the least resistance of virtually all metals, it is still resistant. Heat is produced when current passes through various metals, including copper, and therefore, energy is lost (one can visualize the heat escaping from the base of a laptop).

With room-temperature superconductivity, current can flow via a closed loop infinitely, which means energy would not be lost.

In the days to come, such a state could allow a solar farm in the Southwest United States to deliver energy to the East Coast without any loss of energy, or MRI machines—which presently require liquid helium to work—to be sent to war zones. It could even change how electronics are designed and made and may transform the transportation system.

Salamat has dubbed it a “paradigm-shifting” discovery, which was partly realized by the Early Career Award he received from the U.S. Department of Energy earlier in 2019.

The competitive DOE program boosts financial support for extraordinary talent during critical early career years, when a majority of the scientists perform their most formative work and was instrumental for Salamat to focus on the issue of detecting a room-temperature superconductor.

The finding also coincides perfectly with Salamat’s wider research priorities, detecting the accurate composition of metal superhydrides—that is, extremely hydrogen-rich materials—and methods to instantly produce them.

According to Salamat, the discovery of room-temperature superconductor was not what one would call an “eureka” moment, but it is more of a targeted, methodical attempt made by him and Dias. The next step for the team is to design a procedure that discharges the pressure for such materials and, at the same time, retains their superconducting characteristics.

To promote their continued work on the issue, both Dias and Salamat have launched a new firm called Unearthly Materials to identify a means to room-temperature superconductors that can be created at the ambient pressure scale.

We live in a semiconductor society. With this kind of technology, you can take society from a semi-conducting society into a superconducting society.

Ashkan Salamat, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

The study’s co-authors on the Nature article include Keith Lawler from UNLV’s Nevada Extreme Conditions Lab; Elliot Snider, Nathan Dasenbrock-Gammon, Raymond McBride, Kevin Vencatasamy, and Hiranya Vindana, all from the Dias laboratory at the University of Rochester; and Mathew Debessai of Intel Corporation.

Journal Reference:

Snider, E., et al. (2020) Room-temperature superconductivity in a carbonaceous sulfur hydride. Nature.


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