Superconductivity at room temperature and room pressure has been a major goal of materials science for more than a century, and may have finally been achieved. If this new superconducting material holds up, it could revolutionize the way our universe works — but the findings are heading for serious scientific scrutiny first.
When a material is superconducting, electricity flows through it without resistance, which means that none of the energy involved is lost as heat. But every superconductor made to date requires extremely high pressures, and most demand similarly high temperatures.
Ranga Dias of the University of Rochester in New York and his colleagues claim to have made a material of hydrogen, nitrogen and lutetium that becomes superconducting at a temperature of just 21 degrees Celsius (69 degrees Fahrenheit) and a pressure of 1 giga-pascal. This is roughly 10,000 times the atmospheric pressure at Earth’s surface, but still a pressure much lower than any superconducting material. “Let’s say you were riding a horse in the 1940s when you saw a Ferrari driving in front of you – that’s the level of difference between the previous experiences and this experience,” Dias says.
To make the material, they put a mixture of the three elements into a diamond anvil—a piece of machinery that compresses samples to unusually high pressures between two diamonds—and squeezed it. As the material was compressed, it changed color from blue to red, leading the researchers to call it “red matter.”
The researchers then conducted a series of tests to examine the electrical resistance and heat capacity of the red material, and how it interacts with an applied magnetic field. They said that all tests indicated that the material was superconducting.
But not all researchers in this field are convinced. “They may have discovered something completely unprecedented and amazing in this work, something that would win a Nobel Prize, but I have some reservations,” says James Hamlin of the University of Florida.
Some of his reservations, and those of other superconductivity researchers, are due to the controversy surrounding a 2020 paper written by Dias and his team, which claimed superconductivity at room temperature, and was later retracted by the Scientific Journal. nature. At the time, some questioned whether the data presented in the paper was accurate and raised questions about how the published data was derived from the raw measurements.
Until the authors provide answers to those questions that are understandable, there is no reason to believe so [the data] Jorge Hirsch of the University of California, San Diego, says:
Part of the reason skepticism is so difficult to allay is that we don’t know enough about red matter to build a theoretical understanding of the mechanism behind possible superconductivity. “There is still a lot to be done in terms of understanding the fine structure of this material, which is critical to understanding how this material is superconducting,” says Dias. “Hopefully if we can make them in larger quantities we can get a better understanding of the materials’ structure.”
If theorists can work out how and why this material becomes superconducting, it would go a long way toward convincing researchers that it is, in fact, a superconductor, and could also put red matter on the path to industrial production. The structures in this work are probably very different [from previously confirmed superconducting materials]says Eva Zurek of the University at Buffalo, New York. “The mechanism behind the superconductivity of this compound may be different, but I can’t know for sure because I don’t have a structure to work on.”
If independent groups are able to investigate the superconductivity of red matter and learn its structure, this could be one of the most influential scientific discoveries ever made. A superconductor at room temperature and room pressure can make the electric power grid more efficient and environmentally friendly, magnetic supercharging and much more. “I think there are a lot of technologies that haven’t been imagined yet that can use superconductivity at room temperature and room pressure,” Zurek says.
But researchers aren’t dreaming of a superconducting society just yet. “Obviously there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny,” says Hamlin. “I think the difference here from the previous finding is that this is so low pressure that a lot of other groups could look at this.” There are only a handful of laboratories around the world that have expensive, intricate diamond anvils capable of reaching the high pressures required by previous superconducting experiments, but pressure cells that can reach 1 GPa are relatively common.
This may be the biggest factor that differentiates this work from the withdrawn 2020 paper. “Their previous work has not been reproduced by an independent group, but this work needs to be reproduced very quickly,” says Tim Strobel of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. “We will do this right away.” If all goes well, this could mark the beginning of an energy revolution.