Speed Reads

The future is now

U.S. scientists unveil 'reddmatter' superconductor breakthrough that could revolutionize energy, if true

Scientists at the University of Rochester reported this week that they have taken a big leap toward creating a commercially viable superconductor that operates at room temperature and a low enough level of high pressure to be used in almost any technology that uses electric energy. Ranga Dias, a professor of mechanical engineering and physics, announced his team's findings on Tuesday to a packed room at an American Physical Society meeting in Las Vegas. And the breakthrough was detailed Wednesday in a paper published in the journal Nature

Superconductors, first discovered in 1911, conduct electric currents without any resistance, or loss of energy through heat. But they only lose their resistance at extremely cold temperatures and extremely high pressure. Dias' team says it created a material — called "reddmatter" because it turns red under pressure and in homage to the 2009 film Star Trek — that can act as a superconductor at up to 69 degrees Fahrenheit and 145,000 pounds per square inch (psi). That's about 10,000 times more pressure that the 15 psi at sea level, but engineers already make commercially accessible products, like microchips and synthetic diamonds, using more than 145,000 psi. 

The new material is made from the rare earth metal lutetium baked in a gas mixture of 99 percent hydrogen and 1 percent nitrogen.

With a material like that, "we could magnetically levitate trains above superconducting rails, change the way electricity is stored and transferred, and revolutionize medical imaging," Dias told The Wall Street Journal. A room-temperature superconductor could also allow longer-lasting batteries, lossless power grids, and potentially, practical nuclear fusion reactors, he added. 

Other physicists described the study as very promising, but it also "comes from a team that faces wide skepticism because a 2020 paper that described a promising but less practical superconducting material was retracted after other scientists questioned some of the data," The New York Times notes. That other paper was also published in Nature, and Dias said it has been resubmitted with new, more transparent data.

"If this is real, it's a really important breakthrough," Paul C.W. Chu, a University of Houston physics professor not involved with the research, told the Times. "I'm cautiously optimistic," added Timothy Strobel, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science also not involved in the study. "The data in the paper, it looks great," and Dias "really could be the best high-pressure physicist in the world, poised to win the Nobel Prize. Or there's something else going on."