Could a breakthrough in superconducting material bring to light electronic efficiency?
The tantalizing possibility of room-temperature superconductivity has long enchanted scientists and investors alike, as such a discovery would revolutionize the efficiency of electronics and infrastructure. Superconductivity effectively eliminates the resistance that causes energy loss and overheating in everyday devices, like cell phones. To date, superconductivity has only been observed at very low temperatures.
Recently, scientists at a little-known South Korean startup and a university team in New York claimed to have found the superconductor holy grail – a compound named LK-99. The claims led to a short-lived frenzy about the purported discovery’s investment implications. These claims were quickly called into question by scientists, and the broad conclusion was that room-temperature superconductivity remains elusive.
To understand what happened and what is possible in this much-hyped field, Double Take recently welcomed Dr. Inna Vishik, an associate professor of physics at the University of California, Davis, whose laboratory studies emergent electronic phenomena in quantum materials.
According to Vishik, the scientific community did not support the highly publicized pair of results for different reasons. It was discovered the New York study originated from a group that previously had to retract an earlier claim of room-temperature superconductivity due to poor data practices and potential data manipulation, and subsequently the group’s superconductivity claims were under investigation. The South Korean group claimed to have observed superconductivity not only at room temperature, but at the boiling point of water, which created an immediate stir.
We see claims of high and room-temperature superconductors popping up without context every couple of years… They are called unidentified superconducting objects. And the initial report of this superconductivity, it really took off on social media, and that was maybe one of the reasons that the scientific community paid more attention. So, from the start, just looking at the data in that (South Korean) pre-print, it did not appear to be made up or fraudulent from what we could tell, but there were certain hints that it wasn’t really a superconductor – namely the resistance … or the resistivity … did not go to zero in what they purported was the superconducting region. So that is kind of a deal breaker there.Dr. Inna Vishik, associate professor of physics at the University of California, Davis
Still, the fact remains that nothing in physics eliminates the possibility of room-temperature superconductivity. In Vishik’s view, this explains the excitement surrounding new discoveries in the field.
So the fact that it’s not disallowed (by the laws of physics) is kind of one reason that people keep searching… Oftentimes when you have a material that wants to become superconducting, it only wants to become superconducting relatively weakly. Alternately, it might want to become a magnet, or maybe an unusual type of semiconductor or whatever. So just the tendency to want to become superconducting in a material is usually weaker than the tendency to want to become something else. And case in point, we have lots of magnets at room temperature. So iron, nickel, cobalt, all become magnets at higher than room temperature. But we don’t yet have room-temperature superconductors.”Dr. Inna Vishik
In Vishik’s opinion, it is quite possible researchers could land on room-temperature superconductivity in her lifetime. She also believes liquid nitrogen superconductors could be put to greater use. In 1986, the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in copper oxides, which operate at liquid-nitrogen temperatures, did not quite lead to widespread use of the materials.
Furthermore, adjacent discoveries made in the quest for room-temperature superconductors could also prove transformative.
I would say in the process of researching superconductors, people more often discover other materials that might do other useful things.Dr. Inna Vishik
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