What would be the implications of this technology, and when might it be achieved?
What sort of applications could we see in computing, energy, transportation, etc.?
Looking at this graph (from Wikipedia), it might be possible to extrapolate a trend. The description page has explanations for each label colour. Given that room temperature is about 300 kelvin, we can't be far away from a working prototype – 2030 or thereabouts?
I'm a little confused by the materials and physics, etc. so any explanations in layman's terms would be greatly appreciated. This is something I'd love to include on our timeline.
EDIT: I've just noticed the inclusion of gigapascals (GPa) below, so these were obviously done at extreme pressures. In that case, a less energy-intensive version would take a lot longer to be perfected.
Since there haven't been any answers quite as in-depth as I hoped for, I figured I'd respond.
1: What could we do with it?
Here's a very good answer.
It would pretty much revolutionize science and engineering as much as the discovery of electricity. Room temperature superconductors have applications almost EVERYWHERE in the realm of electricity. Some of the advantages would be:
Power transmission- We would have ZERO losses in power transmission. This would eliminate the need to convert low voltage AC from generators to high voltage AC thats suitable for transmission. With a significant decrease in vampire power wastage through resistance and transformer losses, our current energy sources would be able to sustain us much longer than usual, thus preserving the environment (provided the energy is from fossil fuel sources). So, in a way, we can say that room temperature superconductors help save the environment.
Transportation: With room temperature superconductors available, all of our railways, including public transit systems would be able to convert to magnetic levitation rather than electricity or coal powered. They would save energy during functioning and eliminate the need for fossil fuel powered vehicles.
Manufacturing electronics: If room temperature superconductors are made on an industrial scale, they would replace ALL wires in electronic circuits. Electrical resistance would undoubtedly be necessary in certain electronic components such as transistors and resistors, but if all wires were replaced by room temperature superconductors then power losses would drastically fall. Engines would become more efficient, computers, phones, motors and all other electronics would consume far less energy, and we'd be saving up a lot of energy if we invented room temperature superconductors.
Huge strides in alternative energy: With so much extra electricity on our hands, we would now be able to harvest resources more efficiently. Hydrogen economies would be possible, where we use the extra electricity to extract hydrogen from sea water and use it as a fuel, thus almost eliminating the need for fossil fuels. Research into other alternative forms of energy such as solar or wind would also become more viable, now that we have high efficiency generators and wires that have no electrical resistance.
Scope for scientific research would increase: Modern day science experiments consume huge amounts of energy and are thus quite expensive to maintain. Sure, the LHC costed many billions of dollars to build, but every time the LHC runs, it uses enough energy to run a small town. With all this extra energy, scientific experiments wouldn't be as expensive as they are today, and scientists would have enough energy to carry out their experiments. Plus, the energy saved could be used for other research as well, such as harvesting rare elements from deep within the earth's crust, designing and building space technology and finding out new methods of space propulsion.
Nuclear fusion as a viable power source would become a reality: If we had wires that could carry practically infinite amounts of current without heating up we would be able to build incredibly strong magnetic fields, much stronger than those created by the liquid-helium-niobium-titanium-superconducting-magnets that are used in tokamaks or experimental fusion reactors. With this level of initial energy density we would get a self sufficient thermonuclear reaction that could power the earth for generations to come.
Jobs and employment: If all what I said was true, then we would have a HUGE market for superconducting magnets, starting from mining their respective ore, processing the minerals, manufacturing them on an industrial scale, selling them to the public and managing the whole process. It would create a huge demand for engineers, scientists, technicians, geologists, metallurgists, mathematicians, construction workers and people involved in management and business.
Cons If whatever I mentioned above truly works, then we'd be left with GIGANTIC piles of old electric devices, ranging all the way from transmission wires to transformers to motors to generators to electronics. Recycling companies would make a killing, but throwing away 200 years worth of electrical equipment would undoubtedly make the problem of safe disposal of waste a nightmare.
Another con would be that if all of the above were to happen, massive fossil fuel conglomerates would go utterly and truly bankrupt. Except for plastics, cosmetics, tar, fertilizers and running old machinery, companies such as Shell or BP would lose all of their profits. They would either not allow this to happen by pressurizing governments to cut research and stop supporting the above developing industries (which is the more likely option) or they would try to adapt with the changes and go with the flow.
However, all in all, the invention (or discovery) of room temperature superconductors would truly REVOLUTIONIZE our way of life today and would be a change for the better.
Here's another answer:
You need really strong permanent magnets to create the magnetic fields necessary for high resolution MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) instruments. They are really the same thing just for different fields as "nuclear" is too scary for medicine...
Right now those fields are provided by superconducting coils that make electromagnets, but in order to work they must be kept super cold. Like a few Kelvin cold. We do that by encasing them in liquid helium. Then we encase the liquid helium encased coil with liquid nitrogen, just so the liquid helium lasts longer. All in all it is pretty expensive to setup these instruments and very expensive to maintain them.
There is also a relatively high risk of catastrophic failure. If the temperature rises just a bit too much or a small defect appears in the coil then a small amount of resistance is created, which creates heat and raises the electrical resistance in a chain reaction. The now hot coil quickly boils off all the coolant liquid and floods whatever room the thing is in with helium and nitrogen. This can theoretically displace all the oxygen quickly, and can suffocate people that didn't escape quickly enough. To be fair, the whole thing would be quite scary and noisy so unless you were trapped in there you should be able to get out just fine.
Now if we could use room-temp superconductors instead then we can make these things much smaller and cheaper (at least cheaper upkeep). Chemists and biologists would love this for the power it would give to research, and medicine would love to perform these tests cheaply. It wouldn't really change the world, but it would make several fields very happy and would probably both increase the pace of some scientific research and lessen medical bills.
Michio Kaku even went as far as saying that a room temperature superconductor could "kickstart another industrial revolution."
There's little I could add to what has already been mentioned.
2: How close are we?
Depending on who you ask, we are either very close to creating them or we've already created them.
May 22nd, 2019
Scientists break record for highest-temperature superconductor
Using advanced technology at UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory, the team studied a class of materials in which they observed superconductivity at temperatures of about minus 23 degrees Celsius (minus 9 degrees Fahrenheit, 250 K)—a jump of about 50 degrees compared to the previous confirmed record.
December 19th, 2018
First hint of near-room-temperature superconductor tantalizes physicists
“The observation is amazing”, says Yanming Ma, a physicist at Jilin University in Changchun, China, although he cautions that the work is in its early stages. Getting to room temperature has been “a long-held dream”, Ma says, ever since superconductivity was discovered more than a century ago.
Russell Hemley, a materials chemist at George Washington University in Washington DC, first announced evidence of superconductivity at −13 °C in May, and then revealed hints of an even higher, 7 °C transition, at a conference in August. His team is now publishing the results in Physical Review Letters1.
The authors report seeing a sudden drop in electrical resistance at 7 °C in a material they synthesized: a ‘superhydride’ — a compound that contains a large amount of hydrogen — of lanthanum, LaH10. Such a drop is the hallmark of a phase transition to superconductivity that occurs when the material is cooled below a threshold temperature. “We’re very confident that we see a transition,” says Hemley.
Either way, it would be possible to keep both materials superconducting with very little power. You could potentially do it with an industrial freezer with the former and your refrigerator in the latter (for Americans, 7°C is 44.6 °F). In physics terms, the former is just below room temperature while the latter is very much room temperature ("room temperature" meaning you don't need liquid nitrogen or lasers to cool the material and can reasonably keep it out at ambient temperatures).
The problem in that case isn't making them superconducting at higher temperatures, but keeping them stable at higher pressures. In both cases, they only superconduct when they're subjected to pressures around 200 gigapascals. That's about what you'd experience at the center of the Earth, with the weight of the entire planet pushing down on you. While harrowing, it's not impossible for us to get a material to that point.
What we want is for these materials to be metastable. Diamonds are metastable, for example: you need extreme pressure to create a diamond (though certainly nowhere near even a single gigapascal by far), but once the diamond's created, it's metastable and will retain its features and abilities at ambient pressure and temperature. If these materials are metastable, then we could reduce the pressure to 1 atmosphere (which is what we experience on the surface of Earth) and they'll still be room-temperature superconductors. That would be incredible.
If everything works out, history will say room temperature superconductors were first synthesized in either 2018 or 2019. It would just require a lot of energy to create them for some time.
3: What does a post-RTSC world look like?
Wikipedia got you. I'm guessing it basically increases the ease of utility for these technologies.
The second link might be the best one yet.
Some of the technological applications of superconductivity include:
- the production of sensitive magnetometers based on SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference devices)
- fast digital circuits (including those based on Josephson junctions and rapid single flux quantum technology),
- powerful superconducting electromagnets used in maglev trains, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machines, magnetic confinement fusion reactors (e.g. tokamaks), and the beam-steering and focusing magnets used in particle accelerators
- low-loss power cables
- RF and microwave filters (e.g., for mobile phone base stations, as well as military ultra-sensitive/selective receivers)
- fast fault current limiters
- high sensitivity particle detectors, including the transition edge sensor, the superconducting bolometer, the superconducting tunnel junction detector, the kinetic inductance detector, and the superconducting nanowire single-photon detector
- railgun and coilgun magnets
- electric motors and generators
Added together, you'll have a very energy-efficient society. Starspawn0 talks about portable MRIs as being the catalyst for brain-computer interfacing— with RTSCs, we could have such systems that have enough power and imaging capability as to effectively wear them in a form factor that might be virtually indistinguishable from a "second skin".
Another post elsewhere mentioned that kickstarting Mars' magnetic field is within our capabilities. With RTSCs, we could supply Mars with enough power to restore its magnetic field for possibly a tenth of the cost mentioned here, which would effectively start its terraforming process and allow minimally-protected humans to stand on the surface (on the equator at least) well within a lifetime without much else being done.
I personally have wondered if it would be possible to use room-temperature superconductors for a sort of propulsion. That perhaps rapidly rotating RTSCs could provide lift. However, I doubt the physics work out.
Where the physics do work out is in the case of RTSCs allowing for much better maglevs and railguns. Crossing the two concepts brings to mind vactrains, of which hyperloops are the first generation but certainly not the end-all-be-all of possibilities. With RTSCs, when could create a new generation of hyperloops that are essentially rideable railguns— you could be "shot" across entire continents in under an hour, perhaps even under half an hour. The speeds possible by vactrains are typically listed as "hypersonic", or about 5,000 miles per hour at least. And RTSCs could make them feasible and relatively inexpensive to create.
And if we could create railgun-style transportation across the planet, it would also be possible to aim them upwards and create orbital launch mechanisms. With enough power, we could launch things at tens of thousands of miles per hour, speeds typically only reached after several years of gravitational assist.
As has been previously mentioned, RTSCs would supercharge battery storage, and the effects that alone would have on modern electronics is unfathomable. Where I care the most, besides in the area of clean energy, is what things means for artificial intelligence and robotics. Besides AI being too weak, one reason why robots like ASIMO were impractical for bringing into the home was because they could only run for a few hours at most. The very first ASIMO had a 30-minute operational runtime, and I think they magically increased it to a whopping one hour by its last iteration. A hypothetical Super ASIMO in a post-RTSC age might be able to operate for many more hours before recharging. Speaking of which, that superconductor battery can be charged almost instantly, so if you were to recharge ASIMO wirelessly, it would appear as if it were running continuously.