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Dr. Ranga Dias with a laser inside one of his University of Rochester laboratories / WSJ. A group of researchers at the University of Roches...

Dr. Ranga Dias with a laser inside one of his University of Rochester laboratories / WSJ.
A group of researchers at the University of Rochester report that they have made a breakthrough in superconductivity research, creating superconductors that can operate at room temperature and much lower pressure than previously discovered superconducting materials.

Scientists say they have produced the first commercially accessible material that eliminates the loss of energy as electricity moves along a wire, a breakthrough that could mean longer-lasting batteries, more-efficient power grids, and improved high-speed trains.

According to the article, a team of researchers from the University of Rochester and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has discovered a new type of superconductor that operates at temperatures that are relatively warm compared to other superconductors. 

The material, which is made up of hydrogen, carbon, and sulfur, is said to exhibit superconductivity at a temperature of -23 degrees Celsius (-9.4 degrees Fahrenheit), which is about 50 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the previous record for a superconductor.

The breakthrough has the potential to create lossless electrical grids, and better and cheaper magnets for use in future nuclear fusion reactors, among other things, according to Ranga Dias, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and physics at the University of Rochester, who led the breakthrough work. That is because perfect conductors that work in every day, ambient conditions don’t require expensive, large cooling systems. 

“We could magnetically levitate trains above superconducting rails, change the way electricity is stored and transferred, and revolutionize medical imaging,” Dr. Dias said. Superconductors demonstrate what physicists call the Meissner effect, when a material expels its magnetic field. If you put a superconductor near a magnet, it will levitate, he added.

In 2020, his group reported that they had created a superconductor made up of a hydrogen, sulfur and carbon combination that operated at roughly room temperature. The catch was it only worked after being baked by a laser and crushed between the tips of two diamonds to a pressure greater than that found in the center of the Earth, in a device known as a diamond anvil cell.

For the new study, which was published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the researchers tweaked their superconductor recipe—adding nitrogen and a rare-earth metal known as lutetium to the hydrogen instead of sulfur and carbon—and once again heated and squeezed it in the diamond anvil cell.

They named the resulting material “reddmatter,” after observing how the material’s hue changed from blue to pink to red as it got compressed. The moniker, Dr. Dias said, was inspired by the fictional, black hole-forming substance from the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster ‘Star Trek.’ Dr. Salamat said superconductors that work at everyday temperatures and pressures could also help tackle issues like climate change.

Graduate students analyzing new superconducting materials at the University of Rochester / J. Adam Fenster.
“A superconducting grid can store solar or wind energy, for example, for an indefinite period of time and transfer it over large distances without a loss,” he said. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that 5% of electricity, on average, was lost during transmission and distribution in the country between 2017 and 2021. 

More efficient energy storage and transfer mean less energy use overall, which reduces carbon emissions. Superconductors could also pave the way to cheaper, better machines that can conduct nuclear fusion—which has long been seen as a potential source of clean, virtually limitless energy, Dr. Salamat said.

Nuclear fusion reactions, which combine atoms and release a tremendous amount of energy in the process, don’t generate any radioactive waste or greenhouse gases. Many fusion machines rely on magnetic fields to confine the reactions—and superconductors can create some of the strongest fields. 

The problem is the bulky, expensive cooling apparatuses needed to keep those superconductors cool. Dr. Dias said a superconductor like “reddmatter,” which creates an enormous magnetic field at room temperature, could be a game changer in the next decade or so for efforts to construct fusion reactors.

Noninvasive medical imaging, too, could benefit from superconductors that work at near-ambient conditions, Dr. Salamat said. Most magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machines rely on superconducting magnets, which are made by passing an electrical current through coils of superconducting wire, creating a magnetic field. 

Those coils are chilled using liquid helium—a scarce and expensive resource that limits where MRI systems can be housed, Dr. Salamat said. A room-temperature superconductor could enable smaller, more portable MRI machines that don’t need to be kept cool. “Now, these are very big engineering feats and won’t happen tomorrow. But these are coming in the next decade or so as a consequence of this discovery and others like it,” he said.

While Dr. Dias’s research shows promise, some of his group’s past work has been a target of scrutiny by other scientists. Their 2020 study, detailing another room-temperature superconductor, was retracted by Nature last year after other researchers were unable to replicate the results and questioned the validity of the data showing the Meissner effect in the material.

Dirk van der Marel, a University of Geneva physicist who wasn’t involved in the new research or Dr. Dias’s other work, was among those who raised issues about the 2020 data. Dr. Dias said the retracted paper has been resubmitted to Nature after he and his colleagues collected new data in front of other scientists at the Argonne and Brookhaven National Laboratories, in Illinois and New York, respectively.

The idea that superconductivity is achievable at room temperature with materials rich in hydrogen has been corroborated by other groups, said Russell Hemley, a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Illinois Chicago, who wasn’t involved in the new research but has collaborated with Dr. Dias on other projects.

This breakthrough could have significant implications for a variety of fields, including energy storage and transportation. Superconductors are materials that can conduct electricity with zero resistance, which means that they can potentially be used to create highly efficient electrical transmission systems and energy storage devices.

This breakthrough in superconductivity research has the potential to have a significant impact on the development of more efficient and sustainable energy technologies. The discovery of new superconducting materials could help pave the way for a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.