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Cool! Superconductivity gets a bit warmer ….

Squeeze an alloy composed by carbon, sulphur and hydrogen between two diamonds and electricity will flow with no resistance at 15 Celsius. Image credit: Adam Fenster

Last year, 2019, there was a lot of excitement at the news that a team of researchers demonstrated superconductivity property (flow of electricity with no resistance) at a temperature of -23° Celsius (-9.4° Fahrenheit).

Superconductivity is the holy grail in energy use, it gets as close as you can to perpetual motion (impossible, trackof course). Basically it is about finding a material in which electricity could flow with no resistance. That means no dissipation of heat and no waste in the conductors. It is ideal to generate strong magnetic fields, like the one used for the MagLev (ultra high speed train) that reached 603 Km/h last year in an experimental setting in Japan.

The nice thing about a MagLev is that it is not subject to friction from the rails since it floats over them (but it is of course subject to air resistance) so that in principle it could use less power than a conventional train. The problem is that the generation of those huge magnetic fields requires plenty of electrical current and this in turns generates a lot of waste in form of heat.

With superconductor this problem is solved but today’s superconducting materials have this characteristics only at very low temperatures. Physicists have been able to increase the temperature thresholds from somewhere close to the absolute “zero” to the . This is already supporting a variety of industrial applications with a market that is expected to reach 1.4 billion $ by 2027. This market is focussing on niche applications where cost to refrigerate the material used for superconductivity is not an issue compared with the benefit they provide. Currently, we define as high temperature superconductors those materials that have this characteristics at a temperature greater than -196.2° Celsius (boiling point of liquid hydrogen). These materials are interesting because we have the capability of freezing them at those temperature (using liquid hydrogen!).

Now researchers at the university of Illinois at Chicago have demonstrated superconductivity properties at 15° Celsius in a material composed by carbon, sulphur and hydrogen when compressed by two diamond (look at the photo). The “pressure” that needs to be applied is of the order of 2.6 million times the normal atmospheric pressure, and this is the reason for using diamonds. Because of this high pressure the researchers have not been able to work out the actual composition of the material (the arrangement of its atoms):they demonstrated superconductivity but they do not know why it is created.

You may take this as a curiosity since the material is so tiny that it is difficult to imagine a practical application and the requisite of applying such pressure makes it quite difficult to achieve outside of a lab. However, the result is really impressive and it opens up to new studies that by leading to understand why such material becomes a superconductor can also find alternative solutions where much lower pressure can lead to the same result.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.