Note: these results are still new and will need to be replicated and further studied by the scientific community. This whole thing may be nonsense, but I did some thinking on the impact if it’s true.
Researchers from Korea University have synthesized a superconductor that works at ambient pressure and mild oven-like temperatures (like 260 deg F, not a room I want to be in) with what they call a modified lead-apatite (LK-99) structure. This is a significant breakthrough as previous near-room-temperature superconductors required high pressures to function (the highest-temperature results before were at >1 million atmospheres), making them impractical for many applications. They are posturing for this to be a big deal: the authors published two papers about it concurrently: one with six authors, and one with only three. (as in Nobel prize 3)
You can read the paper here.
The modified lead-apatite (LK-99) structure is a type of crystal structure that achieves superconductivity from minute structural distortion caused by a slight volume shrinkage (0.48 %), not by external factors such as temperature and pressure. Their key innovation for letting electrons glide doesn’t come from low temp, or by squeezing together. It comes from an internal tension that forms as the material forms, just like the tempered glass of a car windshield.
This structure in particular is a specific arrangement of lead, oxygen, and other atoms in a pattern similar to the structure of apatite, a group of phosphate minerals that you might find in your teeth or bones.
The “modified” part comes in when researchers introduce another element, in this case, copper (Cu2+ ions), into the structure. This slight change, or “modification,” causes a small shrinkage in the overall structure and creates a stress that leads to the formation of superconducting quantum wells (SQWs) in the interface of the structure. These SQWs are what allow the material to become a superconductor at room temperature and ambient pressure.
Superconducting Quantum Wells (SQWs) can be thought of as very thin layers within a material where electrons can move freely. These layers are so thin that they confine the movement of electrons to two dimensions. This confinement changes the behavior of the electrons, allowing them to form pairs and move without resistance, which is the key characteristic of superconductivity. In essence, SQWs are the “magic zones” in a material where the amazing phenomenon of superconductivity happens.
The development of a room-temperature superconductor that operates at ambient pressure would be a significant advancement in the field of physics. Superconductors have zero electrical resistance, meaning that they can conduct electricity indefinitely without losing any energy. This could revolutionize many applications, including power transmission, transportation, and computing. For example, it could lead to more efficient power grids, faster and more efficient computers, and high-speed magnetic levitation trains.
The cool thing is that the LK-99 material can be prepared in about 34 hours using basic lab equipment, making it a practical option for various applications such as magnets, motors, cables, levitation trains, power cables, qubits for quantum computers, THz antennas, and more.
So, if the paper is true, how could this change transportation?
Electric Vehicles (EVs): Superconductors can carry electric current without any resistance, which means that electric vehicles could become much more efficient. The batteries in EVs could last longer, and the vehicles could be lighter because the heavy copper wiring currently used could be replaced with superconducting materials. This could lead to significant improvements in range and performance for electric cars, buses, and trucks.
Maglev Trains: Superconductors are already used in some magnetic levitation (maglev) trains to create the magnetic fields that lift and propel the train. Room-temperature superconductors could make these systems much more efficient and easier to maintain, as they wouldn’t require the cooling systems that current superconductors need. This could make maglev trains more common and could lead to faster, more efficient public transportation.
Aircraft: In the aviation industry, superconductors could be used to create more efficient electric motors for aircraft. This could lead to electric airplanes that are more feasible and efficient, reducing the carbon footprint of air travel.
Shipping: Electric propulsion for ships could also become more efficient with the use of superconductors, leading to less reliance on fossil fuels in the shipping industry.
Infrastructure: Superconducting materials could be used in the power grid to reduce energy loss during transmission. This could make electric-powered transportation more efficient and sustainable on a large scale.
Space Travel: In space travel, superconductors could be used in the creation of powerful magnetic fields for ion drives or other advanced propulsion technologies, potentially opening up the solar system to more extensive exploration.
The other field I want to explore is computing, just some quick thoughts here on what I would want to explore at DARPA in an area like this:
Energy Efficiency: Superconductors carry electrical current without resistance, which means that they don’t produce heat. This could drastically reduce the energy consumption of computers and data centers, which currently use a significant amount of energy for cooling.
Processing Speed: Superconductors can switch between states almost instantly, which could lead to much faster processing speeds. This could enable more powerful computers and could advance fields that require heavy computation, like artificial intelligence and data analysis.
Quantum Computing: Superconductors are already used in some types of quantum computers, which can solve certain types of problems much more efficiently than classical computers. Room-temperature superconductors could make quantum computers more practical and accessible, potentially leading to a revolution in computing power.
Data Storage: Superconductors could also be used to create more efficient and compact data storage devices. This could increase the amount of data that can be stored in a given space and could improve the speed at which data can be accessed.
Internet Infrastructure: The internet relies on a vast network of cables to transmit data. Superconducting cables could transmit data with virtually no loss, improving the speed and reliability of internet connections.
Nanotechnology: The properties of superconductors could enable the development of new nanotechnologies in computing. For example, they could be used to create nanoscale circuits or other components. This could be from leveraging some cool physics. Superconductors expel magnetic fields, a phenomenon known as the Meissner effect. This property could be used in nanotechnology for creating magnetic field shields or for the precise control of magnetic fields at the nanoscale. Another cool application could leverage Josephson Junctions. Superconductors can form structures which are a type of quantum mechanical switch. These junctions can switch states incredibly quickly, potentially allowing for faster processing speeds in nanoscale electronic devices. Finally, you could build very sensitive sensors with superconductors by creating extremely sensitive magnetic sensors (SQUIDs – Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices). At the nanoscale, these could be used for a variety of applications, including the detection of small magnetic fields, such as those used in hard drives.
So, we will see how the debate on this pans out. In the meantime, speculate on some Lead mines and enjoy a dose of science-fueled optimism of the type of breakthroughs we may see in the near future.