back to article Good news: Boffins have finally built room-temperature superconductors. Bad news: You'll need a laser, a diamond anvil, and a lot of pressure

Scientists say they have forged the world’s first room-temperature superconductor: a powder-like material capable of conducting electricity with zero resistance. Superconducting properties emerge from the substance – described as “carbonaceous sulfur hydride” in a research paper published in Nature on Wednesday – when it's at …

  1. Tomislav

    Pounds per square inch? Really? No jubs per football fields? :)

    1. BinkyTheHorse
      Trollface

      Exactly! Couldn't you at least include a conversion to EUR?

    2. Bonzo_red

      Be thankful that the article included K and °C to make it understandable in the light o the use of "colored" and "sulfur".

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Sulfur is here to stay.

        Even the Royal Society of Chemistry has accepted sulfur as the default spelling now. Sorry.

        1. navidier

          Re: Sulfur is here to stay.

          Even the Royal Society of Chemistry has accepted sulfur as the default spelling now. Sorry.

          ....and the IUPAC, which is the ultimate arbiter on matters of chemical nomenclature. I forgive them, though, as they finally agreed to let "muonium" be the common term for the lightest isotope of protium. Which matters to me as I'm the author of several papers of muoniated (formerly muonated, see above) radicals in elementary sulfur...

          1. Tom 7 Silver badge

            Re: Sulfur is here to stay.

            We all have to lower our standards because you dont understand search and replace?

      2. ridley

        At least it's not Fysics, yet...

        1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

          Or fizziks

        2. Tom 7 Silver badge

          Lets get <Olivia Newton-Foot-Pound> Visicalc </Olivia Newton-Foot-Pound>!

    3. cortland

      £? Where;\'s the thruppence? (says the Yank)

  2. Danny 2 Silver badge

    diamond anvils

    I worked at a microprocessor place and that's the first time I've heard the term even though it's old. Bags the 'Diamond Anvil Cells' for a band name, a cross between William Gibson and David Bowie.

    1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

      Re: diamond anvils

      Diamond anvils have been more-or-less standard equipment in high pressure labs since 1959, when the original paper was published:

      Weir, C.E.; Lippincott, E.R.; Van Valkenburg, A.; Bunting, E.N. (July 1959). "Infrared studies in the 1 to 15 micron region to 30,000 atmospheres

      I certainly knew about them in the mid/late 60s when I was a chemistry student and doing a summer job in a ceramics lab, but using X-ray diffraction and Mossbauer spectroscopy to analyse graphite intercalation compounds was more fun.

    2. HildyJ Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: diamond anvils

      Keep in mind that you use two flawless, faceted, gem quality diamonds (I believe less than a half caret each) but you don't use the two top facets (those are for observation) you use the two bottom facets (the pointy bits) which are usually 100 - 250 microns across. So we're not talking about a big sample or anything close to usable, much less manufacturable, sample.

      This is merely the start of a new research path for the boffins.

  3. Umbracorn

    Superconducting gunpowder

    A touch of saltpetre and their recipe should be bang on.

    1. Citizen99

      Re: Superconducting gunpowder

      When I was a schoolboy in the '50s I bought all the ingredients from the High Street chemist, prior to November 5th. Times change.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Superconducting gunpowder

        I used to buy litres of Amyl Nitrate from the chemist for making thin plastic wing coatings for ultra-light model aeroplanes. I managed a 48" wing covering one day and laughed till my head hurt.

    2. cortland

      Re: Superconducting gunpowder

      Check the cellars at Parliament.

  4. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

    Re. Superconducting gunpowder

    MgB2 is fairly energetic as it is, and cuprates got me a visit from the MIB because they "wanted to know WTF I was doing".

    Turns out that you can't just buy barium carbonate and make your own, you need all sorts of paperwork.

    BSCCO is somewhat safer if you can get around the whole "reflow under oxygen at 900C for 10 hours" thing

    requiring: a modified desktop kiln, oxygen regulator, cylinder and all sorts of other fun items you won't find at Radio Shack.

    On the flip side I made lots of progress on the non-superconducting components including how to use special chromium

    containing solder to connect wires to Mr Pellet and determined that salvaging it from dead washing machine brushes is

    both feasible and profitable though best to ask first.

    Note to anyone brave enough to try this, carbon debris can also exhibit odd properties especially if you mix it with some

    heptane-containing solvents. MEK + acetone also works though this is best done in a fume hood!!

    Another interesting experiment is tinkering with complex metal alloys though magneto-resistive rather than superconductors.

    1. Rol Silver badge

      Re: Re. Superconducting gunpowder

      SBD at an initial 37.2C is lethal. Curry based SBD seems to be at far higher temperature, but this is just an illusion.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Re. Superconducting gunpowder

        Ah Copper diluted with Zinc - one of the best TV comedies ever!

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Re. Superconducting gunpowder

      You only need newlines between paragraphs.

    3. Eclectic Man Bronze badge

      Re: Re. Superconducting gunpowder

      @ Conundrun1885

      Umm, whereabouts do you live / work? I don't need an actual address, just the general location to within 50 miles. (I want to be out of the blast radius if whatever you are working on goes 'foom'!)

      Thanks, and best wishes.

      1. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

        Re: Re. Superconducting gunpowder

        Its fine, moved to theoretical physics wrt passive medical imaging for the most part.

        Also pretty sure it can't go "foom!" though did look into a better containment system for my early vacuum experiments. That particular line of research wasn't possible as vacuum pump needed too many things replaced though scratch building a fusor is feasible.

        Turns out that drilling though *plate* glass is quite simple but don't do that with anything pre stressed as I found out the hard way.

        Incidentally did you know that JPL was founded because the folks doing experiments needed somewhere safer to work after one of their projects went slightly awry.

        49° 26' N and 2° 35' W.

        1. Eclectic Man Bronze badge

          Re: Re. Superconducting gunpowder

          Ta, I feel sufficiently clear of 49° 26' N and 2° 35' W being somewhere in the area covered by OS Landranger map 175, or thereabouts.

          I didn't know about JPL, but one of my friends lived in Australia as a child. He spent a lot of time in the Outback building rockets, as in actual rockets that he launched (he did a Ph.D. in chemistry later). When he showed his father what he was doing he was kind of grounded / banned from any access to pretty much anything that burned at all. Mind you, he still had his hearing and all his fingers the last time I saw him.

        2. keith_w Bronze badge

          Re: Re. Superconducting gunpowder

          "Incidentally did you know that JPL was founded because the folks doing experiments needed somewhere safer to work after one of their projects went slightly awry."

          That's why it was nicknamed "Jack Parson's Lab"

    4. Charlie Clark Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Re. Superconducting gunpowder

      determined that salvaging it from dead washing machine brushes is both feasible and profitable though best to ask first.

      Best advice to any aspiring tinkerer, ever! Always ask a responsible adult for her permission before you start.

      1. seven of five Silver badge

        Re: Re. Superconducting gunpowder

        Responsible adults never gave permission to me. Obviously, as they would not be responsible if they did...

  5. Dave 126 Silver badge

    Years of reading...

    ... popular science publications had taught me that whenever I read "Researchers have achieved X at room temperature!*" , the asterisk nearly always means " but at stupidly high pressures"

    1. MrBanana

      Re: Years of reading...

      Or in a perfect vacuum, or with the addition of a mahoosive magnetic field, or as here: with a frickin' laser pointed at it. Not sure if the laser was turned on, maybe it was just there to intimidate the powder into superconductivity.

  6. Ochib

    Pressure pushing down on me

    Pressing down on you, no man ask for

    Under pressure that burns a building down

  7. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    Did I miss it..

    But did this state that the result of high squishing plus lasers at room temp was stable once you stop smashing it and going pew pew?

    By that I mean, can this be made practical or does it need to have the anvil permanently making it into paste whilst shining a light on it?

    If it is stable, then could it be crushed at a lower pressure at a lower temp and still have the same properties?

    The reason for such pondering is that if the result is stable once processed, can the process use larger scale (but lower pressure) equipment at a lower temperature (but still way above zero degrees kelvin).

    Idle thoughts after speed reading the article whilst in another video conference.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Did I miss it..

      Nope its only magic while being pressed.

      And we don't know what its limit magnetic field is

      And it's probably really hard to make into long wires

      And it probably wouldn't have the right pinch point properties to self-recover from a quench

      Temperature isn't the hardest thing about superconductors. If you had all the other properties right then even liquid nitrogen "high temperature" superconductors would be practical.

  8. ThatOne Silver badge

    > does it need to have the anvil permanently making it into paste whilst shining a light on it?

    I'm afraid so, else it would be just a somewhat demanding manufacturing process, and you would find reels of superconducting wires in every bigger DIY shop in a dozen years...

    Unfortunately it's more a proof of concept than something you might eventually find in something you own. A pity, for superconduction at room temperatures would solve a lot of problems in many domains, from power generation to trains!

    1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      A pity, for superconduction at room temperatures would solve a lot of problems in many domains, from power generation to trains!

      It wouldn't really. First of all, Ohmic losses are not a major issue just about anywhere. Secondly, and mainly. superconductors all show significant AC losses.

    2. hoola Bronze badge

      All clever stuff but replacing one fairly tricky and expensive problem (super cooling) with another even more difficult and expensive problem is not really dramatic progress. If the temperature could be raised, even a relatively small amount without the the pressure then it would be progress.

  9. vtcodger Silver badge

    You'll need a laser, diamond anvils, a lot of pressure

    ... And a sweater. 15C is a bit on the nippy side for most people.

    Overall, good news, but the articles I've read are a bit scant on issues like toxicity, stability, flammability, rigidity, etc. Things one might want to look into before incorporating the stuff into a real world device. Assuming it doesn't evaporate or turn into a pile of somewhat noxious debris when the pressure is released.

    1. richard?

      For practical purposes this brings it into the water cooling range, which is a lot cheaper and more feasible than liquefied gases.

      I guess the toxicity checks would come later - at the moment having crazy pressure and lasers firing is the bigger safety point!

  10. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Facepalm

    What a great discovery

    We have now replaced the temperature problem with a pressure problem. Instead of cooling a mile of cable with liquid hydrogen (or whatever it is they use), we'll have to maintain that mile of cable under millions of atmospheres of pressure while zapping it with lasers.

    I really don't see how this improves the situation.

    1. ChrisC

      Re: What a great discovery

      Because it opens up a different avenue of research into achieving the same end goal, which may lead to a better understanding of the problem than we had when we were all focussed on experiments using temperature as a means to induce superconductivity.

      So yes, it does seem like a great discovery, if you're prepared to view it with open eyes and an open mind.

      1. Alister Silver badge

        Re: What a great discovery

        The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.

        (Pterry)

        1. Major N

          Re: What a great discovery

          "If you open your mind too much your brain will fall out"

          - Tim Minchin

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What a great discovery

      The process goes something like:

      1) Find something which superconducts at high temperature.

      2) Work out what its structure is (and hence how it superconducts).

      3) Begin making similar materials which will (hopefully) superconduct under slightly less extreme conditions.

      ...

      NNN) Produce a material which superconducts at room temperature and pressure, and doesn't require zapping with lasers.

      After reading the link, it appears that the team may already be at step 3. The material tested is supposedly a low-pressure analogue of a form of hydrogen which has been theoretically predicted to superconduct. So they've managed to reduce the pressure requirement already!

      (You may also be pleased to note that they have also carried out step 1a - Form a company to patent and exploit the invention.)

      1. Dave Taflin
        Joke

        Re: What a great discovery

        NNN+1) Profit!

      2. David 164

        Re: What a great discovery

        I'm pretty sure they settle for room pressure and room temperature superconductor that they have to fire a laser at.

    3. DS999

      Because we don't understand superconductivity very well

      Every additional data point of different types of material that superconducts brings us one step closer to understanding how it works, and being coming closer to the 'holy grail' material that would:

      1) superconduct at 100C so no cooling is required even in deserts at the equator

      2) be composed of readily available non-toxic inputs

      3) be inexpensively manufactured into a strong wire

      We've seen enough to believe that such a material is possible, or maybe even likely, but without understanding enough about what makes a material superconducting we're just guessing and either trying materials "similar enough to" known superconductors or completely new strategies like this one to find new "similar enough to" domains to explore.

      Hopefully it is like metamaterials and we'll unlock the key so we have a pretty good idea how well something will work before even trying it and won't have to waste time exploring dead ends like ceramics.

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Re: Because we don't understand superconductivity very well

        I'm sorry to rain on your parade but no, we haven't seen anything to suggest that 373K superconductors are possible, let alone likely and there is absolutely no reason to belief that such a material, if it existed, would have any practical use. HTS has been around for forty years now and the closest they have come to serious use is "Umm, maybe for antennas on the shady side of spacecraft?" and some embarrassed foot-shuffling.

        1. JCitizen Bronze badge
          Happy

          Re: Because we don't understand superconductivity very well

          I'm a little more optimistic - so far, even though a true ambient temperature superconductor hasn't be discovered yet, the search to make one has at least yielded materials that conduct electricity approaching more exotic metals like gold or platinum. Because of this, we now have devices that are so much more efficient that they can save energy and make services much more affordable. Our city discovered that, and started buying transformers and other devices that save so much power, that they were actually able to buy more and more energy saving devices, and systems for city power grids and buildings with the same tax payer's money. This lead to a temporary and almost exponential growth in city power efficiency, and they saved so much money that they were able to build a power plant to augment the city in emergency conditions. I'd say any small advance in the area of this science is well worth every effort.

    4. Cynic_999 Silver badge

      Re: What a great discovery

      It improves the situation because you can keep a substance under permanent pressure without requiring any energy. There is however no practical way to prevent at least some heat transfer to a substance at close to absolute zero, and so you will always need to keep pumping that heat away (i.e. keep it refrigerated).

    5. N2 Silver badge

      Re: What a great discovery

      Indeed,

      Will I live long enough to see the benefits, like superconducting speaker cables? probably not.

  11. Helcat
    Joke

    "Scientists say they have forged the world’s first room-temperature superconductor"

    So it's a fake then? A forgery?

    No? I'll get my coat...

    (don't you love ambiguity in language :) )

    1. HildyJ Silver badge
      Happy

      Forge

      It has only become an ambiguity because English usage expanded with the times.

      Back when Isaac Newton (yes, that one) was in charge of the Mint, coins were forged (using anvils and pressure) and fake coins were called forgeries. When paper money started forgeries became fake money rather than fake coins. Nowadays it just means fake.

  12. steelpillow Silver badge
    Coat

    Under pressure

    So the surface of Jupiter is one giant superconducting superintelligent alien. I wonder how deep it goes?

    > "Pressure pushing down on me" - dum dada dum dada dum dum... < RIP, dudes.

  13. Ian Johnston Silver badge

    This report is mildly interesting but misses out - possibly because it's unknown - the most important piece of information, which is "What's the critical current?" One of the reasons High-Tc materials have never taken off is that they all have lousy critical currents at 77K. Cool 'em down to 4.2K and things look much better. Since critical current usually increases linearly with temperature below critical temperature, an 80K Tc material (say) will have twenty times the Ic in helium that is has in nitrogen.

    And if you're going to cool stuff down to 4.2K, you might as well use something Niobium based. Cheaper, stronger (those j x B forces), easier to work with, better all round.

    If this turns out to be real (I first saw reports of room temperature SC in the early eighties) it is probably no more than a scientific curiosity, like YBBC, BSCCO and the rest of the alphabet soup.

  14. Ribfeast

    Makes me wonder if black holes and neutron stars are also superconductors, and if that would induce any interesting properties or fields etc...

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Neutron star cores are superconductors even at a temperature of a few billion degrees (temperature defn get a bit squirly in a neutron star core) however the pressure is also a little extreme

  15. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
    Coat

    So, it's true...

    ...if at first you don't succeed, get a bigger hammer!

    1. seven of five Silver badge

      Re: So, it's true...

      Absolutely, it is important to have the correct hammer for every screw you may encounter.

  16. Gordon 10 Silver badge
    FAIL

    Interesting but a cheat?

    Surely they have just swapped temperature for pressure? I know boyles law doesnt work for solids but I presume the powdered state or the immense pressure gives some compressibility, which results in some hirthertoo unknown effect on the electrons?

    This seems as unlikely to result in a useful superconductor as supercooling it.

    Are there any good examples of pressures this high being generated outside of a lab. (ie where a wire would need to go)

    I think its a cheat, an interesting cheat, but seems like a dead-end to me. They might as well as said we can make it out of Neutronium or Unobtainium.

  17. Charlie van Becelaere
    Boffin

    It sounds as though

    the key is in the structure - the atoms' being bound in a crystalline lattice. Perhaps a sheet of diamond doped with sulphur in exactly the right spots would do. I'm off to the shed for a bit of doping (as it were).

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bad news?

    How can requiring a laser be bad news?

  19. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

    Re. Bad News?

    Actually lasers can be used in a different way.

    In this case messing with the molecular configuration during ALD may work.

    I found out a while back that blue lasers (440-460nm) can be used to "tickle" the Sr atoms in BSCCO

    and am in the process of making a test pellet with the aim to make the 2223 variant with high Tc.

    The trick is to use a very thin layer on special glass and "nuke" it from the transparent side.

    In fact sandwiching pre-crushed and part calcined Mott insulator between two pieces of glass and then

    doing the laser step under flowing O2 may work.

    The formula has to be absolutely correct and even a trace of ferrous metals may foul things up.

    Posting this on here so folks can replicate it as and when the paper gets released, by following my

    train of thought.

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