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Superconductivity at room temperature is a software biz

A depiction of an experiment to achieve superconductivity at room temperature. Lanthanum and hydrogen are squeezed by very high pressure generated by two diamond anvils and transformed into lanthanum hydride. At very high pressure this compound acquires superconducting properties. Image credit: Drozdov et al. Nature

The quest for superconductivity at room temperature continues.

Superconductivity, the property of a material to conduct electricity with no resistance al all, was discovered over hundred years ago, back in 1911 by a Dutch physicist, Heike Onnes. It is the holy grail of power distribution. Resistance is bad because:

  • it wastes power (some 5 to 6% lost in the distribution network, the grid – watch the clip)
  • it heats the conductors (those on the grid and those inside the various motors and appliances…) thus limiting the amount of power that can be used
  • it requires more material (the bigger the conductor the lower the resistance)

Hence, it is a no brainer that the use of superconductors (those materials having superconductivity characteristics) is the

Variety of materials demonstrating superconductivity at different temperatures. Notice the little text following each compound indicating the needed pressure expressed in gPa – billion of Pascal. 1 Bar, i.e. the atmospheric pressure at sea level is equivalent to 100,000 Pascal, or 0.0001gPa Image credit: Adapted from PJRay – CC BY-SA 4.0 with the inclusion of the latest discovery – red dot

way to go.  The problem is that this properties pops up only at very low temperatures. When it was discovered it required temperatures very close to the absolute zero (-273.15 C, 0 K) but in the last fifty years, as shown in the graphic, researchers have been able to discover materials with superconductivity properties at higher temperatures.

The progress that has been made in achieving superconductivity at higher and higher temperature (the goal is to have it at room temperature, getting rid of the need to refrigerate the cables) has required the quest for new compounds and the use of very high pressure. When “squeezed” the atoms wiggle a little bit less (if you allow me this image of wiggling atoms…, let’s hope no physicists read this) and it becomes easier to deliver superconductivity.

Recently, researchers at the University of Rochester and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, have demonstrated superconductivity at room temperature, 15C, in a lanthanum hydride compound. The good news is tempered by the need to apply a gigantic pressure, 2.6 million times the atmospheric pressure at sea level.

So on the one hand we have compounds that could -in principle- be used at superconductors but we need to freeze them at impossible low temperature (hence the need for huge amount of power to do that) or we have compounds that we an use at more reasonable temperatures (requiring limited power to ensure those) but they need to be squeezed at impossible pressures (that in turns require very huge power). Additionally, notice that it is not just about the power that would be required (to achieve low temperatures or high pressure), it is about the practicality (impossibility) of achieving that in the field.

Are we stuck?

Well, there is hope. Researchers are now investigating possible compounds using software. Rather than having to create a compound and test it they are now using artificial intelligence to discover compounds that might have superconducting properties and simulate their behaviour in the cyberspace. This is both way faster and cheaper!

The whole are of digital alloys, that is compounds being designed by software, is in rapid evolution an we might expect significant results in this decade.

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.