BUFFALO, NY – After decades of hunting, scientists recently announced the discovery of a room temperature superconductor – an elusive material that carries electricity without any loss of energy at everyday temperatures.
Eva Zurek, PhD, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, discusses why researchers around the world are celebrating this extraordinary milestone and what work remains to be done in this fascinating field.
Zurek was not the author of the October 14 paper in Nature announcing the creation of the room temperature superconductor, a compound of carbon, sulfur, and hydrogen that is superconducting at temperatures of up to 58 degrees Fahrenheit. This study was led by Ranga P. Dias at the University of Rochester. However, Zurek is part of a team that previously used numerical calculations to investigate the potential for superconductivity in a carbon-sulfur-hydrogen system.
As a theoretical chemist, Zurek uses supercomputers to predict the structures and properties of superconductors, superhard materials, and other novel materials. She is also an expert in high pressure chemistry.
She notes that while the latest breakthrough is exciting, it will not result in immediate technological advances, as the material is only superconducting at enormous pressures equivalent to those found deep inside the earth.
Q: What is a room temperature superconductor?
Zurek: “Current flows through a superconducting material without resistance. Superconductors also emit magnetic fields (Meissner effect). In addition, a superconductor can maintain an electric current even when no voltage is applied. Each superconducting material is assigned a critical temperature below which the superconducting state is maintained. The superconducting properties are destroyed above the critical temperature.
“A superconductor at room temperature would revolutionize the technology. A superconducting power grid would not lose energy through resistance, which would lead to enormous energy savings compared to today’s technology. Superconducting magnets are used in MRI machines, particle accelerators and in magnetic levitation trains. ”
Q: How long have scientists been looking for a room temperature superconductor?
Zurek: “The first superconductor, discovered by Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911, had an extremely low critical temperature, only a few degrees above absolute zero. Since that discovery, scientists have dreamed of room temperature superconductivity. However, raising the critical temperature turned out to be extremely difficult, and despite many advances (and several Nobel Prizes) over the years, the known materials had to be cooled with liquid helium or liquid nitrogen until recently. ”
Q: The new material is superconducting under immense pressure when the connection between diamonds is pressed. Why is Dr. Is the guided study important despite this limitation?
Zurek: “This is the first material that can have superconductivity at room temperature (a cool room, but still). The experiment shows that superconductivity at room temperature – one of the holy grails of materials research – is possible. Understanding the chemical structure of the material and the reason why it is a superconductor will hopefully provide design principles by which to design or synthesize a material with a similar critical temperature but at lower pressures. ”
Q: What is the likelihood of ever finding a superconductor that works at room temperature and “normal” pressure?
Zurek: “This will be very difficult and would undoubtedly justify a Nobel Prize. In the past 5-10 years we have discovered some of the design principles for the synthesis / construction of high temperature superconductors (hydrogen rich materials under pressure are key). The next step is to discover design principles to lower the pressure while maintaining the good superconducting properties. The way forward is currently not entirely clear. However, the introduction of elements that can form strong bonds (which would not break apart when depressurized) is one possibility. Carbon would form such strong bonds. Progress in this area is accelerating, so I am cautiously optimistic. ”
Q: What work has your team done on room temperature superconductors?
Zurek: “My group uses crystal structure prediction methods in conjunction with quantum mechanical calculations to predict chemical compounds that could be stable under pressure and superconducting. We also calculate their potential for superconductivity.
“We previously looked at the carbon-sulfur-hydrogen system, but our results do not match those of Dias. This could be because our calculations do not take into account more complicated phenomena such as the quantum behavior of protons or because we investigated the wrong chemical composition. We study these problems and hope that our calculations can explain Dias’ work and help characterize the material his team made. ”
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