This Breakthrough Could Make Longer-Lasting Batteries and Better Power Grids—if It Works
A new superconductor could revolutionize energy, but doubts surround the researchers, who published a similar paper in 2020 that was later retracted
As electricity moves through a wire, it faces some resistance, causing a bit of its energy to be lost as heat. For more than a century, scientists have tried to find some way to eliminate this loss of energy, which would make electricity use much more efficient. Their answer to this problem: superconductors.
These materials conduct electricity without losing energy, but so far, the only way for a superconductor to work is in an ultra-cold or ultra-high-pressure environment. Now, however, a team of researchers claims they have produced a superconductor that can function at room temperature and with a relatively small amount of pressure.
This breakthrough could make power grids more efficient and batteries last longer in devices like laptops and phones, writes the Wall Street Journal’s Aylin Woodward. But first, it needs to be proven to work.
“If it’s true, it’s a great discovery,” Eugene Gregoryanz, a physicist at the University of Edinburgh who did not participate in the research, tells Science News’ Emily Conover and James R. Riordon. “Whether it’s true or not, I guess time will show.”
Some scientists are skeptical of this announcement, in part because the same research team reported a similar finding with a different material in a 2020 paper published in Nature that was later retracted by the journal due to issues with the data.
“I’ve lost some trust in what’s coming from that group,” James Hamlin, a physicist at the University of Florida who did not contribute to the research, tells the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang.
The phenomenon known as superconductivity was first discovered more than 100 years ago. At that time, scientists realized that mercury cooled to nearly absolute zero (or about minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit) exhibited no resistance to the flow of electricity. Superconductors also expel magnetic fields, allowing magnets to levitate over them.
Over time, researchers have operated superconductors in slightly less extreme conditions. In 2015, scientists created a superconductor that works at relatively balmy minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit—but it still required a pressure of about half that of Earth’s core, according to Quanta Magazine’s Charlie Wood and Zack Savitsky.
With a superconductor that works at room temperature and lower pressures, “we could magnetically levitate trains above superconducting rails, change the way electricity is stored and transferred and revolutionize medical imaging,” Ranga Dias, the leader of the group that reported the new discovery and a physicist at the University of Rochester, tells the Wall Street Journal.
For the new research, published Wednesday in Nature, scientists used a material made of hydrogen, nitrogen and a silvery-white, dense metal called lutetium. After being heated and compressed, the material behaved like a superconductor at temperatures as high as around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and with a pressure around 10,000 times that of Earth’s atmosphere—orders of magnitude lower than the pressure needed for other room-temperature superconductors, according to Science News.
This pressure is within “a range where engineers can jump on and make a commercially viable product,” Stanley Tozer, a physicist at Florida State University who didn’t participate in the research, tells the Wall Street Journal.
The test now is whether other researchers can replicate the results, Mikhail Eremets, a physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany who was not involved in the research, tells Science News.
“Perhaps they have discovered something absolutely groundbreaking and Earth-shattering in this work, something that would win a Nobel prize, but I have some reservations,” Hamlin tells New Scientist’s Leah Crane.
Nature retracted the 2020 paper from Dias’ team after other researchers questioned the validity of the data and could not replicate the results. When the team released their raw data for a particular plot in the 2020 paper, a separate group of scientists claimed they could mathematically prove that the raw data was false, derived from the published data rather than from lab experiments, per Quanta Magazine.
Hamlin also found that several passages from his own doctoral thesis were used verbatim in Dias’ dissertation, per the Times. Further, a co-author of the retracted paper was also the first author of a 2009 study on superconductivity that was later retracted because of altered data, per Quanta Magazine.
Dias tells IEEE Spectrum’s Margo Anderson that his team has followed higher levels of transparency with the new paper. “We [allowed] everybody to come to our lab and see how we do the measurements. During the review process, we shared all our data with the referees,” he tells the publication.
It remains to be seen whether the new research can be verified by others, but some experts say it should become apparent soon. “Their previous work still hasn’t been reproduced by an independent group, but this one should be reproduced extremely quickly,” Tim Strobel, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science who did not contribute to the study, tells New Scientist. “We’re going to do this right away.”