Holy Grail of energy efficiency: Physicists advance in the race for superconductivity at room temperature

Diamond Anvil Cell

A team of physicists at UNLV’s Nevada Extreme Conditions Lab (NEXCL) used a diamond anvil cell, a research device similar to the one pictured, in their research to reduce the pressure required to observe a material capable of superconductivity at room temperature. Credit: Image courtesy of NEXCL

Less than two years ago the world of science was surprised by the discovery of a material capable of superconductivity at room temperature. Now, a team of physicists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) has upped the ante again by replicating the feat at the lowest pressure ever recorded.

To be clear, this means science is closer than ever to a usable, replicable material that could one day revolutionize the way energy is transported.

International headlines were made in 2020 for the discovery of superconductivity at room temperature for the first time by UNLV physicist Ashkan Salamat and his colleague Ranga Dias, a physicist at the University of Rochester. To achieve the feat, the scientists chemically synthesized a mixture of carbon, sulfur, and hydrogen first into a metallic state, and then further into a superconducting state at room temperature using extremely high-pressure conditions (267 gigapascals) that you’d only find in nature near the center of the Earth.

Fast forward less than two years, and the researchers can now complete the feat at just 91 GPa, about a third of the pressure originally reported. The new findings were published as an advanced paper in the journal Chemical Communications this month.

A great discovery

By fine-tuning the composition of carbon, sulfur and hydrogen used in the original breakthrough, the researchers are now able to produce a material at a lower pressure that retains its superconducting state.

“These are pressures at a level that is difficult to understand and evaluate outside the laboratory, but our current track record shows that it is possible to achieve relatively high superconducting temperatures at consistently lower pressures, which is our ultimate goal,” said the author studio principal, Gregory Alexander Smith. , a graduate student researcher with the Nevada Extreme Conditions Laboratory (NEXCL) at UNLV. “At the end of the day, if we want to make devices beneficial to society’s needs, we need to reduce the pressure required to create them.”

Although the pressures are still very high (about a thousand times higher than what you would experience at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean), they continue to move toward a near-zero goal. It’s a race that’s gaining momentum exponentially at UNLV as researchers better understand the chemical relationship between the carbon, sulfur and hydrogen that make up the material.

“Our knowledge of the relationship between carbon and sulfur is advancing rapidly, and we are finding ratios that result in remarkably different and more efficient responses than were initially observed,” said Salamat, who directs NEXCL’s UNLV and contributed to the last post. to study. “To observe such different phenomena in a similar system just shows the richness of Mother Nature. There is so much more to understand, and each new breakthrough brings us closer to the precipice of everyday superconducting devices.”

The Holy Grail of energy efficiency

Superconductivity is a remarkable phenomenon first observed more than a century ago, but only at remarkably low temperatures that precluded any idea of ​​practical application. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists theorized that the feat might be possible at higher temperatures. Salamat and colleagues’ 2020 discovery of a room-temperature superconductor excited the science world in part because the technology supports electrical flow with zero resistance, meaning that energy passing through a circuit could be driven infinitely and without loss of power. This could have major implications for energy storage and transmission, supporting everything from better cell phone batteries to a more efficient energy grid.

“The global energy crisis shows no signs of slowing down, and costs are rising in part because of an American energy grid that loses approximately $30 billion a year due to the inefficiency of current technology,” Salamat said. “For social change, we need to lead with technology, and the work being done today I believe is at the forefront of tomorrow’s solutions.”

According to Salamat, the properties of superconductors can support a new generation of materials that could fundamentally change the energy infrastructure of the US and beyond.

“Imagine harnessing energy in Nevada and sending it across the country without any energy loss,” he said. “This technology could one day make that possible.”

Reference: “Carbon Content Drives High-Temperature Superconductivity in Carbon Sulfur Hydride Below 100 GPa” by G. Alexander Smith, Ines E. Collings, Elliot Snider, Dean Smith, Sylvain Petitgirard, Jesse S. Smith, Melanie White, Elyse Jones, Paul Ellison, Keith V. Lawler, Ranga P. Dias, and Ashkan Salamat, July 7, 2022, Chemical Communications.
DOI: 10.1039/D2CC03170A

Smith, the lead author, is a former UNLV undergraduate researcher in Salamat’s lab and a current PhD student in chemistry and research with NEXCL. Other study authors include Salamat, Dean Smith, Paul Ellison, Melanie White and Keith Lawler with UNLV; Ranga Dias, Elliot Snider and Elyse Jones with the University of Rochester; Ines E. Collings with the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, Sylvain Petitgirard with ETH Zurich; and Jesse S. Smith with Argonne National Laboratory.

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