Matt Ridley

Why I’m sceptical about a superconductor breakthrough

A metal cube levitates over a superconducting magnet (photo: iStock)

A team of South Korean scientists has pre-printed a paper asserting that they have achieved superconductivity at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. The paper has led to widespread speculation that this is the most significant physics discovery in decades, with huge implications for energy, medical technology and computing. Even Jordan Peterson is asking if room-temperature superconductivity has become a reality. 

If the paper is true, it is indeed big news.  

The authors of this latest paper are not hiding the light of their excitement under any bushels of modesty

But there are widespread doubts as to whether it will prove true. The paper comes from an unknown team at a start-up institute with little track record in the field, it has not been peer reviewed and its charts are frankly a mess. So the betting is it will prove to be just a familiar hype-and-disappoint cycle of the kind that plagues the field of energy physics. 

But there are good reasons to think that the phenomenon itself might be possible one day; that it’s not a physical impossibility. 

Superconductors do exist: they can carry electrical currents without resistance, generating no heat and experiencing no losses. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes got the Nobel prize 110 years ago for discovering that if you plonk some mercury in liquid helium, at minus 269C, it loses all resistance to electrical current. 

But given how difficult it is to make liquid helium, and to maintain such low temperatures, this remained a curiosity of little practical use. Then in 1986 scientists at IBM found that certain oxides could superconduct at higher temperatures. An oxide of three metals, yttrium-barium-copper, superconducted at a balmy minus 170C, above the temperature of liquid nitrogen, a much cheaper refrigerant to make. That made it useful in big magnets, for instance in scanners.

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Written by
Matt Ridley
Matt Ridley is the author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom (2020), and co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 (2021)

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