Researchers close in on physics’ holy grail with ‘super’ breakthrough

16 Jan 2019

Superconductivity in action using liquid nitrogen (unrelated to this breakthrough). Image: © Forance/

A team of scientists in the US has brought us a huge step closer to a superconductor capable of working at room temperature.

If humankind were to find a way to construct a large-scale superconductor that could work at room temperature, the way our energy grids and computers are built – and many other areas of daily life – would be fundamentally changed.

The phenomenon is the lack of electrical resistance and is observed in many materials when they are cooled below temperatures of around -180 degrees Celsius, making them rather limited in their application. However, a team from George Washington University in the US has revealed something that could help us finally reach what is one of the most sought-after achievements in modern physics.

“Room temperature superconductivity has been the proverbial ‘holy grail’ waiting to be found, and achieving it – albeit at 2m atmospheres – is a paradigm-changing moment in the history of science,” said researcher Maddury Somayazulu.

‘A new era of superconductivity’

Publishing their findings in Physical Review Letters, the research team detailed the creation of a metallic, hydrogen-rich compound in very high temperatures in the region of 2m atmospheres.

Using devices called diamond anvil cells, the researchers created high pressures to squeeze together minuscule samples of hydrogen and lanthanum. Once the samples were heated, the researchers observed major changes in their structure, resulting in a whole new structure dubbed LaH10. This, the team said, had been previously predicted as a superconductor at high temperatures.

Continuing this path, they found a replicable change in electrical properties at high pressures and significant drops in resistivity when cooled to -13 degrees Celsius at up to 200 gigapascals of pressure. Subsequent experiments saw success at temperatures of 6 degrees Celsius.

“We believe this is the beginning of a new era of superconductivity,” said Russell Hemley of the team. “We have examined just one chemical system – the rare-earth [lanthanum] plus hydrogen. There are additional structures in this system but, more significantly, there are many other hydrogen-rich materials like these with different chemical compositions to explore.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic