Superconductors are the type of technology that look like magic! They can levitate objects, make computers work in mind-bending ways and help us peer inside our bodies in unprecedented detail (MRI). But a new superconductor has come along that may herald even more unbelievable technology that was unthinkable only a few years ago.
So what makes superconductors so unique? And why is this new one so special?
A superconductor is a material with zero electrical resistance. This property is far more impressive than it sounds! To explain, I first need to re-cap what electrical resistance is.
Have you ever felt your phone, a computer or a lightbulb heat up? This is because the metals these circuits are made out of have electrical resistance. As the electrons pass through the metal wires, they ‘bump’ into the metal’s atoms, imparting a bit of their kinetic energy, making the material heat up. So some of the electrical energy is always being lost to heat, and in the process, the electrons lose speed making electrical resistance.
But superconductors are different. Their molecules are locked together in a latticework that give free pathways for the electrons to fly through. This means that the electrons can travel as fast as they like, with no resistance, which means no energy lost to heat! Using superconductors we can finally build super-efficient electrical systems.
This super efficiency is what makes superconductors an engineering marvel. Give one a slight magnetic push and the electros spin in eddies making hyper-efficient electromagnets causing the superconductor to levitate! You can make super sensitive electromagnetic sensors, which detect even the smallest disturbance, making MRI possible. Similar sensors can be used to pick up quantum variations, wire a lot of these together (along with some other gubbins) and you get a quantum computer, which can break internet encryptions in seconds!
But, there is a catch which makes superconductors really cumbersome to use. They have to be cooled to insanely low temperatures to get zero electrical resistance! Typically somewhere in the region of 55K (-218.15°C / -360.67°F). Basically, you need an A/C unit of awesome power just to get a small bit of superconductor to work.
But this is where our new wonder material comes in. It is fully operational at 287.7 K (13.3 °C / 58 °F), a monumental leap forward! This means that you no longer need to lug about a huge cooling unit to get a superconductor! Or to put it in other words, a new level of mad technology could have been unlocked!
Using this new material you could have a quantum computer at home, able to break encryption codes in an instant. The world of internet commerce will be turned on its head as hackers now have access to this superpower! Sorry VPNs you can’t protect peoples personal data if a hacker has one of these.
But it goes far beyond breaking the internet. This material will affect everything that is electronic!
EVs will become more powerful and more efficient. Your phone and computer will run faster off energy all while not heating up. MRI machines can be shrunk down to laptop-size, while being so much cheaper, saving lives across the world. Wind turbines and solar panels can be made hyper-efficient and help us become truly sustainable. Maglev systems like Hyperloop will be cheaper to build and operate all while being more powerful. You could even build a space shuttle hyperloop which shoots rockets into space like a magnetic rail gun with minimal energy.
This will be the electrical revolution 2.0. Everything will be better, faster and more powerful. Room-temperature superconductors will change our lives forever.
So, what is stopping us from doing these amazing projects?! Well, this new superconductor isn’t quite perfect. It does have zero electrical resistance at room temperature, but it needs 270 gigapascals of pressure to work!
That is a surprising amount of pressure… It is the equivalent of the weight of 112 Great Walls Of China on the area the size of a credit card. It’s so difficult to describe this material because, under that much pressure, matter acts in odd ways. If you compress pure hydrogen gas this much it acts like a liquid metal. Our wonder material is a compound of hydrogen, sulphur and carbon (all readily available elements) that crystalises under this immense pressure to form the superconductor.
But how do you put that amount of pressure into a computer, phone or electric motor? Right now we can’t, the scientists need to use a diamond anvil cell to get a microscopic-sized sample to the right pressure, so we currently don’t have the technology to build stuff with this material. Plus, would you feel comfortable putting a phone in your pocket with this much pressure stored in it? I certainly wouldn’t!
This is still an amazing discovery, but I can’t help but feel like our hopes of an upcoming tech revolution have been dashed.
Well, not just yet. In the past twenty years, we have increased the temperature of superconductors tenfold. With this speed of innovation, who knows what is around the corner. Sure this material needs pressure to work, but we now know a way to make superconductors without the need to cool them, opening up a way to our wonder material. So soon you may have a quantum supercomputer in your pocket, a super-efficient electric car that can travel hundreds of miles on a trickle of electricity, even take a trip to Mars on a rocket launched by magnets ushering in a new sustainable era. Personally, I can’t wait!