A High Temperature Superconducting Future

In a study in the journal Nature researchers created a “pseudo gap,” in which electrons in superconducting materials line up just before flowing resistance-free.  Sonya Buyting reports.(Click on link for original Scientific American story.)

It’s hard to imagine a world where scientists have figured out how to get superconductors to work at room temperature.

Why superconductors are so cool is they can transmit electricity with virtually no resistance.  If your laptop could do that, it would never heat up as it does now.  Electronics waste energy.

The most practical use for superconductors that don’t have to be cooled to below -100 degrees Celsius would be to distribute energy.  They could easily and efficiently transmit electricity from a windmill in Kansas to downtown San Francisco.

Other applications would be a little more difficult for us to get our minds around if it weren’t for the Jetsons.  Room temperature superconductors could pave the way for levitating cars and hand held Magnetic Resonance Imagining devices.  Levitating trains and MRIs already exist, but the superconductors they use have to be cooled and are not practical.

Where it becomes even harder to grasp is if and when quantum computers become widely available.  Unlike regular computers that can only perform one calculation at a time, quantum computers can theoretically make millions of calculations at once.

When I asked Prof. Louis Taillefer, the main author of the study I reported on for Scientific American, to put his futurist cap and speculate on how he thinks the world might change if and when they figure out how to capitalize on their most recent scientific discovery to make high temperature superconductors, he gave me an analogy.

“You see physicists like Doug (Bonn) and I, solid state physicists, were studying the behavior of electrons in semi-conductors in the 1930s and 40s. They eventually figured out everything with electrons moving in a semi conductor.  They eventually figure out it was possible to then design and invent a device like a transistor.  That was done in 1947, the invention of the transistor.  If you asked them though in 1948, or anyone else in the community, what are you going to do with that?  How is that going to change our life?  They wouldn’t have had a very interesting answer.  They certainly wouldn’t have been able to predict Google, which is a direct consequence 60 years down the road of having a transistor.  In fact the entire information technology is based on this little device out of silicon – the semi conductor.  So now we’re in the superconducting field back where they were in the 1930s and 40s.  We’re in the prehistory just before reaching room temperature superconductor. So achieving that room temperature superconductor would be, for me, the analogue of inventing the transistor.  And the technological consequences would start from there. Now predicting that future is really difficult.  I’d like to say… for me it’s not so much the immediate obvious things like the great capacity to transport electricity that would be fascinating.  These will happen, of course.  But more fascinating are the difficult to predict use and harnessing of the truly quantum nature of a superconductor.  Because quantum physics works at the microscopic level and by and large the quantum weirdness always gets washed out when you get to the human scale.  A few exceptions are for example – the laser – you don’t wash it out because you have that coherence.  I think superconductivity would bring the quantum weirdness to the human scale and that would be just fascinating to see how human ingenuity might harness the quantum scale.  And I just don’t know exactly what’s gong to happen with it, but quantum computer is certain the example a lot of people are thinking about at the moment.”

To quote Bachman-Turner Overdrive, I think it’s fair to say, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”