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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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The Dawn Of A New Era In Superconductor Materials

  • New superconductive materials will become a crucial part of Tokamak machines and faster, more efficient electronics.
  • University of Rochester researchers have created a superconductive material for commercial use.
  • Scientists believe we are now at the beginning of a modern superconducting era.

University of Rochester researchers have created a superconducting material at both a temperature and pressure low enough for practical applications. This is certainly a historical achievement for superconductivity.

In a paper published in Nature, the researchers describe a nitrogen-doped lutetium hydride (NDLH) that exhibits superconductivity at 69° Fahrenheit and 10 kilobars (145,000 pounds per square inch, or psi) of pressure.

Ranga Dias, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and physics said, “With this material, the dawn of ambient superconductivity and applied technologies has arrived.”

Although 145,000 psi might still seem extraordinarily high (atmospheric pressure at sea level is about 15 psi), strain engineering techniques routinely used in chip manufacturing, for example, incorporate materials held together by internal chemical pressures that are even higher.

Scientists have been pursuing this breakthrough in condensed matter physics for more than a century. Superconducting materials have two key properties: electrical resistance vanishes, and the magnetic fields that are expelled pass around the superconducting material. Such materials could enable:

· Power grids that transmit electricity without the loss of up to 200 million megawatt hours (MWh) of the energy that now occurs due to resistance in the wires

· Frictionless, levitating high-speed trains

· More affordable medical imaging and scanning techniques such as MRI and magnetocardiography

· Faster, more efficient electronics for digital logic and memory device technology

· Tokamak machines that use magnetic fields to confine plasmas to achieve fusion as a source of unlimited power

Previously, the Dias team reported creating two materials – carbonaceous sulfur hydride and yttrium superhydride – that are superconducting at 58° Fahrenheit / 39 million psi and 12° Fahreneheit / 26 million psi respectively, in papers in Nature and Physical Review Letters.

Given the importance of the new discovery, Dias and his team went to unusual lengths to document their research and head off criticism that developed in the wake of the previous Nature paper, which led to a retraction by the journal’s editors. The previous paper has been resubmitted to Nature with new data that validates the earlier work, Dias says. The new data was collected outside the lab, at the Argonne and Brookhaven National Laboratories in front of an audience of scientists who saw the superconducting transition live. A similar approach has been taken with the new paper.

Five graduate students in Dias’s lab – Nathan Dasenbrock-Gammon, Elliot Snider, Raymond McBride, Hiranya Pasan, and Dylan Durkee – are listed as co-lead authors. “Everyone in the group was involved in doing the experiments,” Dias said. “It was truly a collective effort.”

‘Startling visual transformation’ at superconductivity and beyond

Hydrides created by combining rare earth metals with hydrogen, then adding nitrogen or carbon, have provided researchers a tantalizing “working recipe” for creating superconducting materials in recent years. In technical terms, rare earth metal hydrides form clathrate-like cage structures, where the rare earth metal ions act as carrier donors, providing sufficient electrons that would enhance the dissociation of the H2 molecules. Nitrogen and carbon help stabilize materials. Bottom line: less pressure is required for superconductivity to occur.

In addition to yttrium, researchers have used other rare earth metals. However, the resulting compounds become superconductive at temperatures or pressures that are still not practical for applications.

So, this time, Dias looked elsewhere along the periodic table.

Lutetium looked like “a good candidate to try,” Dias said. It has highly localized fully-filled 14 electrons in its f orbital configuration that suppress the phonon softening and provide enhancement to the electron-phonon coupling needed for superconductivity to take place at ambient temperatures. “The key question was, how are we going to stabilize this to lower the required pressure? And that’s where nitrogen came into the picture.”

Nitrogen, like carbon, has a rigid atomic structure that can be used to create a more stable, cage-like lattice within a material and it hardens the low-frequency optical phonons, according to Dias. This structure provides the stability for superconductivity to occur at lower pressure.

Dias’s team formulated a gas mixture of 99 percent hydrogen and one percent nitrogen, placed it in a reaction chamber with a pure sample of lutetium, and let the components react for two to three days at 392° Fahrenheit.

The resulting lutetium-nitrogen-hydrogen compound was initially a “lustrous bluish color,” the paper states. When the compound was then compressed in a diamond anvil cell, a “startling visual transformation” occurred: from blue to pink at the onset of superconductivity, and then to a bright red non-superconducting metallic state.

“It was a very bright red,” Dias said. “I was shocked to see colors of this intensity. We humorously suggested a code name for the material at this state – “reddmatter” – after a material that Spock created in the popular 2009 Star Trek movie.” The code name stuck.

The 145,000 psi of pressure required to induce superconductivity is nearly two orders of magnitude lower than the previous low pressure created in Dias’s lab.

Machine learning algorithms for predicting new superconducting materials

With funding support from Dias’s National Science Foundation CAREER award and a grant from the US Department of Energy, his lab has now answered the question of whether superconducting material can exist at both ambient temperatures and pressures low enough for practical applications.

Dias commented, “A pathway to superconducting consumer electronics, energy transfer lines, transportation, and significant improvements of magnetic confinement for fusion are now a reality. We believe we are now at the modern superconducting era.”

For example, Dias predicts that the nitrogen-doped lutetium hydride will greatly accelerate progress in developing tokamak machines to achieve fusion. Instead of using powerful, converging laser beams to implode a fuel pellet, tokamaks rely on strong magnetic fields emitted by a doughnut-shaped enclosure to trap, hold, and ignite super-heated plasmas. NDLH, which produces an “enormous magnetic field” at room temperatures, “will be a game-changer” for the emerging technology, Dias said.

Particularly exciting, according to Dias, is the possibility of training machine-learning algorithms with the accumulated data from superconducting experimentation in his lab to predict other possible superconducting materials – in effect, mixing and matching from thousands of possible combinations of rare earth metals, nitrogen, hydrogen, and carbon.

“In day-to-day life we have many different metals we use for different applications, so we will also need different kinds of superconducting materials,” Dias said. “Just like we use different metals for different applications, we need more ambient superconductors for different applications.”

Coauthor Keith Lawlor has already begun developing algorithms and making calculations using supercomputing resources available through the University of Rochester’s Center for Integrated Research Computing.


An upstate New York hub for superconducting materials?

Dias’s research group recently moved into a new, expanded lab on the third floor of Hopeman Hall on the River Campus. This is the first step in an ambitious plan to launch a degree-granting Center for Superconducting Innovation (CSI) at the University of Rochester, he said.

The center would create an ecosystem for drawing additional faculty and scientists to the University to advance the science of superconductivity. The trained students would broaden the pool of researchers in the field.


This is quite an accomplishment. The work could well be commercial in a rare, very small niche even now.

There will be more to come. The (first?) basic formulae is now in hand. And as noted the effort is underway to find even more recipes for a widening range of applications.

But this isn’t your high capacity transmission line solution, yet. Bugs, parameters and conditions are yet to be discovered and known. The functioning lab unit is as far as this has gone.

It is a historical event. Congratulations are offered with a bit of awe struck respect for the creativity, innovation and brain expansion that got the field so far along. This is quite a team and the plan for a superconducting center looks real good now.

One more . . . Congratulations!

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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Leave a comment
  • David on March 11 2023 said:
    add to your list of things to work out before practical applications the fact that the material used is so rare I've never even heard of it before. We're not gonna be using it to create a smart grid anytime soon, we can barely keep the world supplied with copper let alone this mythic unobtainium.
  • d000d paying attention on March 13 2023 said:
    From Wikipedia: "Pure lutetium metal is very difficult to prepare. It is one of the rarest and most expensive of the rare earth metals with the price about US$10,000 per kilogram, or about one-fourth that of gold."

    Definitely not for transmission lines, maybe not even for (N)MRI much less Tokamaks!

    OTOH, it erases any doubt of something I've been saying for almost 2 decades: invest in Rare Earths & their producers because they are strategic and their value will only go up!

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