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Sourcengine’s Tech Angle: Room-Temperature Superconductors

Sourcengine’s Tech Angle: Room-Temperature Superconductors

The levitating train

Research and development within the semiconductor industry is happening at a break-neck pace. Only four months into the new year, and scientists have made enormous breakthroughs in semiconductors and their applications. Artificial intelligence (AI) is leading the charge with the instantly popular ChatGPT, a natural language processing (NLP) tool that utilizes machine learning algorithms to generate responses. With a wide range of utilization methods, it's grown in millions of users since its introduction in late November 2022. So far, it is leagues ahead of the competition.  

Beyond intelligent chatbots, down the components themselves, advanced semiconductor development continues forging into the future. Recently, Dr. Yong-Hun Kim and Dr. Jeong-Dae Kwon and their research team at the Surface and Nano Materials Division at the Korea Institute of Materials Science (KIMS) successfully developed the world’s first neuromorphic semiconductor devices “with high-density and high-reliability [through] a thin film of lithium-ion battery materials.”  

The team stated that “our next-generation neuromorphic semiconductor device does not require CPU and memory, the traditional Von Neumann-type information device and information storage device. It can simultaneously process and store information and learns and recognizes images such as handwriting patterns. It is expected to be applied to various low-power artificial intelligence devices such as world-class neuromorphic hardware systems, haptic devices, and vision sensors.”  

Their neuromorphic semiconductor device was put to the test, maintaining a handwriting pattern recognition rate of 96.77%. It is impressive when you consider it managed this by finely adjusting the synaptic weight in an electric field repeated more than 500 times. This breakthrough was recently matched by another in spintronics that will allow the semiconductor industry to adopt new industry standards in unmatched energy efficiency and storage. The University of Minnesota Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering team took ten years to study and finalize this immense project.  

According to the research team's data, spintronic devices could be a promising and more efficient alternative to traditional transistor-based chips. Original chip manufacturers (OCMs) are pouring millions into programs to continue these developments. This aims to significantly improve performance, efficiency, and capabilities across various electronic systems. With how much these breakthroughs offer, why is one development surrounded by criticism when the benefits could open a whole new world of scientific and manufacturing possibilities?

That’s the story with room-temperature superconductivity, and the recent revisions made headlines in late March 2023.  

What are Room-Temperature Superconductors and Their Possibilities

Room-temperature superconductivity is a “rarefied state of matter in which electrical resistance in a material drops to zero while its electrical and magnetic capacity vastly expands.” Superconductivity has been observed previously, but only under cryogenic temperatures and phenomenally high pressures. Room-temperature superconductivity, if confirmed, would open the pathway to numerous applications from lossless electric transmissions, high-efficiency electric motors, nuclear fusion, and even magnetically levitating trains.  

In a post by the New York Times, the article detailed that a century ago, when physicists discovered materials now called superconductors, where electrical resistance magically disappeared, scientists have been working for decades to find superconductors that work at room temperatures. Where the resistance electricity encounters as it moves through wires disappears, resulting in no energy loss and heat expended in a practical setting.

Amazingly, many materials can become superconductors. They can transmit electricity without the resistance it usually encounters but must be cooled to extremely low temperatures to do so. Even fewer can work under warmer conditions, but to reduce the amount of pressure they must be placed under is impractical. According to industry scientists and engineers, superconductivity in practical conditions, room temperature, and low pressure would herald a new age.  

Superconductors are currently utilized in some capacity, though mainly in a theoretical and limited capacity. Due to the cost of maintaining low temperatures and high pressures, the efficiency is too impractical to justify. Commonwealth Edison, a utility provider, installed high-temperature superconducting transmission lines to showcase the technologies to power Chicago’s north side for one year. The upgraded superconducting wire carried 200 times the electrical current compared to the conventional wire.  

Beyond power transmission, superconductors provide great work as permanent magnets. This is because a current applied to a superconducting loop will persist forever until it is broken. Today, superconductors are used in magnetic resonance imaging machines for accurate imaging. The superconducting magnet can generate a field that aligns hydrogen nuclei in the patient’s body. Combined with radio waves, it produces tissue images for an MRI machine. These super magnets also have the potential to levitate trains.  

Yamanashi, a superconducting Maglev train in Japan, can levitate 4 inches above the guideway to reach speeds of 311 mph. Superconductors can even improve computing as superconducting circuits are promising in quantum computing. D-Wave Systems, Google, and IBM have built quantum computers that utilize superconducting qubits–basic units of quantum processors, analogous to but more powerful than transistors in traditional computers.  

So why is everyone so skeptical of recent research within the last decade announcing such an achievement?  

Research and Controversy

In 2020, Nature published a paper by Dr. Ranga Dias and his team at the University of Rochester in New York. The paper claimed they had achieved what scientists have dreamed of. A room-temperature superconductor that worked under practical conditions with a new material useful for practical applications. After a short period, the paper was redacted due to the irregular data handling by researchers, which undermined the editors’ confidence in the team’s claims. This superconductor, made of carbon, sulfur, and hydrogen, being able to produce superconductivity at 15° C, fell into a firestorm of scrutiny and skepticism.  

In March 2023, Dr. Dias and his team returned with new findings and a new superconductor that, according to the team, enters superconductivity at room-temperature and practical pressure. The paper was published in Nature, the same publication announced in the 2020 research.  

The research team’s superconductor is “hydrogen mixed with nitrogen and a rare earth element called lutetium.” The team combined these elements and squeezed with into a device called a diamond anvil cell. Researchers then varied the pressure and temperature to measure the resistance to electrical flow in the compound. The required pressure is 10 kilobar, about 10,000 times the pressure of the Earth’s atmosphere, far lower than the typical pressure required for other semiconductors operating near room temperature. According to Dr. Dias, the results were that in temperatures as high as 294 kelvins (or 21° C and 70° F), the material could lose electrical resistance.  

This new superconductor is the hydrogen-rich type known as hydride. Dr. Dias noted that this superconductor could be utilized outside the diamond anvil cell through strain engineering, mimicking the pressure. If so, it opens this superconductor to dozens of practical applications within the electrical field. A previous hydride superconductor made of sulfur and hydrogen was found to be superconductive at -70° C, a record-high temperature when the study was done in 2015 by Dr. Mikhail Eremets at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.  

Both the 2015 and 2018 studies required pressures far too high for practical use. In 2018, before Dr. Dais’s team’s initial publication in 2020, a hydride superconductor of lanthanum and hydrogen was found to superconduct at chilly conditions but closer to room temperature. This new “hydride” superconductor is difficult to understand, according to theoretical physicist Lilia Boeri of Sapienza University in Rome.  

Reception to the latest research by Dr. Dias is mixed. Staunch critics, such as Dr. Jorge Hirsch, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, San Diego, do not believe in the integrity of this new research. Dr. Hirsch has been saying that superconductivity from these high-pressure materials cannot happen as hydrogen cannot be a superconductor. Dr. James Hamlin of the University of Florida said the raw data Dr. Dias obtained looked to be derived from published data.  

Dr. Hamlin stated that he found several passages from his doctoral thesis, written in 2007, that appeared word-for-word in Dr. Dias’s dissertation. Dr. Dias admitted he should have cited Dr. Hamlin’s research, “it was my mistake.”  

Others in the field are cautiously optimistic, considering previous claims and the feasibility of such a study. Dr. Eremets said, “we should consider it seriously in spite of prehistory.” As he has a hard time believing a second retraction and that Nature would hardly allow such a paper to be published again without rigorous testing. Dr. Dias emphasized that this go-around transparency was a top priority.  

“This time, we gave them everything, all the techniques, and everything. Reviews had access to all the data,” Dr. Dias said. Ultimately, confirmation and acceptance of the research lie in the hands of other labs and their ability to reproduce the results. There is hope the answer will come relatively quickly, but only a few groups have access to the incredibly high diamond anvil pressures needed to see similar superconductivity. To allow other groups to reproduce the results faithfully, Dr. Dias and his team must be willing to share their entire raw data set, samples of their materials, and even sample-preparation methods.  

That might not be possible as Dr. Dias has recently applied for a patent on lutetium hydride, which would prevent them from mailing out samples. “We are not going to distribute this material,” Dr. Dias said. “Considering the proprietary nature of our processes and the intellectual property rights that exist.” Specific methodologies and processes might also be off the table.

You Can Always Find the Parts You Need

Superconductivity at room temperature may not yet be available, but with how quickly innovation develops, it might soon be within our grasp. Other labs reproducing similar results as Dr. Dias’s team could lead to discoveries, and different breakthroughs when combined, opening the avenue to electrical developments we have only theorized until now. Until that time comes, improving existing technologies is the best way forward.  

Doing so means ensuring a stable supply of necessary components to power new and improved technologies. The best way to ensure you get the best is by purchasing through a global marketplace where thousands of suppliers regularly post their offers for over one billion parts. Sourcengine is that global marketplace. Combined with a rigorous quality management system, every component that comes through our warehouses is assessed for quality before it reaches your doors.  

If you can’t find what you need listed, our team of global experts is ready to source your hard-to-find components. Send them an RFQ, and you’ll quickly get a personalized quote for your parts. And every part comes with a 3-year warranty. Shop or sell your excess inventory on Sourcengine today.

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