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The internet just went on a wild quest that could result in floating trains and cheap EVs

Hasan Chowdhury   

The internet just went on a wild quest that could result in floating trains and cheap EVs
  • The internet went wild over reports that scientists discovered a room-temperature superconductor.
  • It then embarked on a giant public experiment to replicate the findings.

It's been a wild few weeks for the global science community which was briefly yet gloriously mesmerized by what looked like a piece of rock.

Toward the end of July, researchers in South Korea unveiled a rock-like material no bigger than a tiny shard of glass, named LK-99, and declared it as the world's first room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor.

In its most basic sense, a superconductor describes any material with properties that render electrical resistance — a measure of how well something resists the flow of electricity — essentially nonexistent.

Resistance means we waste electricity pretty much whenever we use anything that requires power. Discovering a room-temperature superconductor would end this inefficiency, make the stuff of science fiction a reality, and completely change the way humans live.

Niladri Banerjee, a senior lecturer in the department of physics at Imperial College London, told Insider that, at an atomic level, this dropoff in resistance happens when negatively-charged electrons, which would usually repel each other, bond to form pairs "under very special circumstances." This bonding creates stability that prevents the kind of scattering that would usually cause resistance.

The conditions for bringing this about are pretty unworkable.

"They form at very low temperatures," Banerjee said. "If you increase the temperature, thermal disruption — all the jiggling of the atoms and electrons — causes the pairs to break."

In the case of a metal such as niobium, which is used as a superconductor today, it takes a temperature of roughly -263 degrees Celsius to crush electrical resistance.

So when the LK-99 findings were submitted on arXiv, an open repository for research papers, scientists over the world expressed both disbelief and euphoria given the world-changing implications.

Much of the subsequent drama has derived from the fact the claims were not peer-reviewed before publication, meaning they need to be replicated before anyone can get really excited. Knowing this, a host of professionals and armchair scientists leaped to action in a giant internet-wide and fevered public experiment.

Unfortunately, in less than 30 days since the paper landed like a bomb, their results suggest it was a dud.

In a thread on X, Michael Fuhrer, a professor at the School of Physics at Monash University in Australia, said the original paper served its purpose, even if it led to researchers exposing flaws in the research.

"The scientists who reported LK-99 now know exactly what questions need to be addressed to produce convincing evidence of superconductivity.....which will move the science faster if there is anything there to find," he said.

It's an "if" that is too big to ignore, though Banerjee says there are some caveats: A room-temperature superconductor alone won't accelerate technological progress.

That said, a future discovery would, in Banerjee's words, make for "one of the greatest breakthroughs in physics in the last century."

Here's how a room-temperature superconductor could change everything:

A revolution in the medical industry

MRI scans are a vital tool in a doctor's assessment of a patient, with their strong magnets and radio waves capable of producing incredibly detailed visuals of the inside of a human body. Unfortunately, they also cost a heck of a lot of money.

It's not uncommon for MRI machines to cost anywhere over $1 million. With a room-temperature superconductor, that cost could dwindle.

Massoud Pedram, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Southern California, says it will do away with the need for liquid helium coolant, an "expensive and in-short-supply" material used to keep machines cool enough to operate.

Banerjee says that this heat often comes because "in MRI you need a large magnetic field" at a high pressure — something that comes from wrapping up a copper wire in several coils and feeding it a high current. In order to overcome that problem in part, he says, you could have "superconductors being coiled around" instead, as a large current can pass through it without any "heat dissipation."

Maglev trains everywhere

Shanghai's 260 mph-plus maglev, a high-speed train connecting Pudong International Airport to the rest of the city while levitating above the tracks, is a feat of engineering that few have been able to emulate.

In a world of futuristic superconductors, that may no longer be the case. By drastically reducing electricity costs, maglev trains would instantly become more financially viable in other parts of the world as they'd be able to travel over longer distances at a fraction of the cost.

A world of fusion energy

For its advocates, fusion holds the promise of limitless clean energy — something that would completely change the way researchers and policymakers approach the existential challenge of the climate crisis.

In 2020, researchers from MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center, as well as the spinout startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems, found a way of using high-temperature superconductor "cable technology" to generate the strong magnetic fields needed to contain plasma generated in fusion reactions.

A room-temperature superconductor would go a step further in helping create these fields under normal conditions.

Electric vehicles made cheaper

Elon Musk has said his grand ambition at Tesla is to make electric vehicles much more affordable for everyone. With room-temperature superconductors, EV makers might be able to take a closer step toward delivering cheap battery-run cars.

As TechCrunch reports, the windings in EV motors could be reduced significantly, while having the potential to minimize charging time and reduce the heat that can cause battery fires.

Banerjee said that like in other areas, replacing copper and other conducting wires in EVs with a superconductor could lead to "zero dissipation or very very low dissipation" of heat.

Quantum computers inch closer

Quantum computers are touted as the future of computing and operate in a realm of qubits rather than the bits of zeroes and ones that today's computers do. These qubits potentially offer a scale of computing that is exponentially more powerful than current systems.

They remain a distant promise at a commercial scale for several reasons, not least because scaling qubits generates all sorts of noise and heat that lead to errors. It forces machines to be kept at extremely cold temperatures.

This is where room-temperature superconductors could one day step in. By getting rid of electricity waste, they would, in theory, drastically reduce the energy demands and heat of these computers, paving the way for their use in everything from the financial system to machine learning.