How room-temperature superconductors would change the world forever – Dr Mohammad Yazdani-Asrami and Dr Devendra Kumar Namburi
Researchers from South Korea have published claims of a significant breakthrough: the first evidence of room-temperature superconductivity at ambient pressure in a lead oxide-based material, LK-99. As superconductivity researchers, we’re excited by this news, which could bring transformative benefits across a wide range of fields. However, we should bear in mind that the paper is yet to be peer-reviewed and should be considered at this stage as an informal claim in unpublished scientific material.
The claim and the findings are yet to be tested by reputed international journals. The process of fabricating LK-99, the testing procedure and the design of the team’s experiment methods must be scrutinised by experts within the scientific community. With that said, if their work turns out to be repeatable, reproducible and reliable, then this could be one of the most important findings of the last few decades in modern physics, if not in science in its entirety.
Superconductors, discovered a century ago, are materials with remarkable physical properties, like the ability to transport current with almost no power loss and carry 100 times more current than conventional copper conductors. In order to work as superconductors, these materials need to be cooled-down to below minus 153C. In present-day practical applications of superconductors like MRI scanners, that means they need be paired with bulky, expensive and power-hungry cryocoolers. The stringent cooling requirements often limit how and where superconductors can be used. A superconductor that works at room temperature would be the Holy Grail of commercialising radically new devices and technologies. It’s no exaggeration to say the world would be changed forever.
In the energy sector, lightweight, room-temperature superconducting machines could be developed for offshore wind turbines, capable of capturing tens of megawatts of energy from ocean winds using simpler, more compact structures. Similarly, new superconducting cables could enable energy transfer with absolutely no loss from offshore turbines to electrical grids in industrial centres and our homes. With no need for any cooling stations, the whole power transmission network would be radically changed.
In the very promising field of fusion energy, the superconducting magnets are required to produce zero-carbon power in future fusion reactors. Deployment of room-temperature superconducting wires would ease the cooling system requirements appreciably. Compact fusion plants distributed around the world would enable energy production virtually free of cost, beyond their initial setup and ongoing maintenance.
In transport, trains which float above the tracks using magnetic levitation could be developed cheaply, drastically altering the way we travel and transport goods today. Large-scale superconducting devices could also form the basis of new propulsion systems for electric aircraft, enabling medium and long-range flights by removing the need for heavy cooling systems. That would slash the carbon emissions of the aviation sector, speeding the urgent transition to net zero required to slow down climate change.
In healthcare, new forms of cheaper, ultra-compact, more powerful room-temperature MRIs could provide high-resolution scans of the body, helping to catch early evidence of diseases like cancer. Advanced forms of scanning like these would help to save lives, but also reduce the burdens on the healthcare sector by enabling interventions before diseases can escalate, forcing more expensive and resource-intensive treatments.
In the realm of quantum physics, room-temperature superconductors would help us build faster computing systems, detectors, and communication devices. Advances in these fields would allow us to develop a clearer understanding of different phenomena in applied and space physics. They would also help to develop next-generation quantum computers capable of performance vastly outstripping even the most powerful digital computers of today. Real-time modelling of complicated systems like the world’s weather, for example, would then be a lot easier.
Finally, our understanding of the fundamental fabric of the universe itself could be expanded by building several potential particle accelerators, which smash together atoms and study the resulting showers of particles. Currently, they require vast amounts of cooling to achieve high-energy particle beams – something new superconductors could enable at room temperature. These approaches would aid better understanding of fundamental physics and simultaneously enable accelerated progress in the realm of space applications.
Before we get too carried away, it is important that the scientific community carries out forensic examination of the impressive claims about LK-99. Further focused research needs to be carried out, both to assess the material completely and revalidate the results.
We should not forget that this area of superconductivity is tricky. Previous, initially promising claims about room-temperature superconductors have been reported and even published, but later retracted. Other results have been published which no independent researchers could reproduce later.
The modern research publication system sadly has a big problem with reproducibility and repeatability of some work. The outcomes of the research should be peer-reviewed in a highly reputed journal, and the materials and contents should be scrutinised by independent researchers. One good thing about this paper is that the authors supplied fabrication and characterisation details to help readers and researchers to reproduce their work, and it appears that they tried to be fairly transparent. Here at the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering, we plan to contact the researchers to offer some measurements on their sample to help test the reproducibility of their work.
Finally, much more research is needed to assess LK-99’s magnetic properties, increase its critical current density, improve mechanical properties, test its performance in vacuum and under pressure, and test the in-field performance of the material before it can be used in any potential real-world applications.
Despite these concerns, we believe this work and media activities around it will make many people familiar with potential uses of superconductors for energy, transport, health, physics, quantum, and communication applications. This work has already lit a glimmer of hope that one day we will see commercially manufactured, room-temperature superconductors for real-world applications. That day might be closer than we thought before!
Dr Mohammad Yazdani-Asrami and Dr Devendra Kumar Namburi are scientists at the James Watt School of Engineering, University of Glasgow
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