Researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory are all excited over a new discovery that they say could usher in the next generation of ultra-efficient electronic devices, batteries, and power grids. The key to the whole thing is a class of materials called cuprates, which can act as superconductors without requiring the super-cold temperatures that superconductors normally need.
Why Room Temperature Superconductors Are So Super
Superconductors don’t waste energy in the form of heat. The problem with the current crop of superconductors is that they require chilling, which adds weight, bulk and expense.
As described by the Brookhaven team, if you could engineer a superconductor that can operate at room temperature, you’re golden:
Picture power grids that never lose energy, more affordable mag-lev train systems, cheaper medical imaging machines like MRI scanners, and smaller yet powerful supercomputers.
Room Temperature Superconductors
Conventional superconductors are efficient because they allow an electrical current to pass through without hitting any “roadblocks.”
The challenge is replicate that phenomenon at room temperature using relatively inexpensive materials.
To solve that problem, the Brookhaven team latched onto cuprates, a class of compounds characterized by layers of copper and oxygen atoms. When doctored with strontium and certain other elements, cuprates act as superconductors but they don’t require the extra-cold environment that other superconductors need:
What makes cuprates so special is that they can achieve this “magical” state of matter at temperatures a hundred degrees or more above those required by standard superconductors. That makes them very promising for real-world, energy-saving applications.
So, if you can figure out exactly how cuprates become superconductors, you’re one step closer to a room temperature superconductor.
A 180 For Superconductor Theory
The new Brookhaven research stands the traditional understanding of superconductors on its head. According to conventional theory, the temperature of the material is controlled by the strength of the interaction between pairs of electrons.
The research team concluded that density, not strength, controls the temperature:
In other words, it’s not the forces between objects that matter here, but the density of objects — in this case, electron pairs.
Actually, it took a decade of work by lead researcher Ivan Bozovic and his team to get to that one-line summary. Here’s the rundown by Brookhaven science writer Ariana Tantillo:
After 10 years of preparing and analyzing more than 2,000 samples of a cuprate with varying amounts of strontium, they found that the number of electron pairs within a given area (say, per cubic centimeter), or the density of electron pairs, controls the superconducting transition temperature.
Our friends over at Science Daily add some details on the methodology:
Bozovic and his research team grew their more than 2,500 LSCO samples by using a custom-designed molecular beam epitaxy system that places single atoms onto a substrate, layer by layer. This system is equipped with advanced surface-science tools, such as those for absorption spectroscopy and electron diffraction, that provide real-time information about the surface morphology, thickness, chemical composition, and crystal structure of the resulting thin films.
Epitaxy refers to layering crystals onto a crystal base, btw. The award-winning system was actually developed by Bozovic and his team.
The next step is to figure out why the electrons pair up to begin with, so stay tuned for that, however long it takes.
Group Hug For US Taxpayers
Didn’t US Senator and former presidential candidate Ted Cruz (R-Texas) once famously say he would abolish the Energy Department, if elected? Yes, he did, and it appears that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is headed down the same track.
Earlier this month, reports surfaced that Trump would give the old heave-ho to the Energy Department, among others.
In that case, it would be bye-bye Brookhaven and all of the other laboratories under the Energy Department umbrella.
Fortunately, the national laboratory system is still intact — for now — so US taxpayers (disclosure: that includes me) can go ahead and give themselves a nice group hug for supporting Brookhaven, Bozovic, and his research team.
In 2014, Bozovic’s record of achievement garnered him a spot among the 2,800 members of Academia Europea, the European Academy of Humanities, Letters, and Sciences. That’s this:
Among the members are fifty-two Nobel Laureates, several of whom were elected to the Academia before they received that prestigious prize. Invitations are made only after nomination by existing members followed by an extensive peer review to scrutinize and confirm each individual’s scholarship and eminence in their chosen field.
Here’s a little more on Bozovic’s record:
His research results have been published in more than 200 highly cited research papers, many in the highest-impact journals such as Nature, Science, and Nature Materials. Bozovic is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics, and a Foreign Member of Serbian Academy of Science and Arts.
Aside from pumping high-risk foundational research into the national economy, the Energy Department also directly supports the private sector through funding for startups (the SunShot Catalyst program is one good example) as well as loan guarantees for the big players.
In one recent example, last summer the Energy Department announced $4.5 million in loan guarantees for Ford, GM, Nissan, Tesla and other stakeholders to expand the nation’s EV charging infrastructure. The goal is to enable “coast-to-coast, nationwide zero emissions travel” by 2020.
Image: “This composite image offers a glimpse inside the custom system Brookhaven scientists used to create samples of materials that may pave the way for high-temperature superconductors” courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory.
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