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April 20, 2023

Are room-temperature superconductors here?

A recent announcement could bring world-changing results—but questions dog the research team that made it.

In the news

At the March annual meeting of the American Physical Society, a team of physicists from the University of Rochester made a breathtaking announcement of a “century-old dream:” A superconductor that works at room temperature (near-ambient superconductivity in an N-doped lutetium hydride, to be precise).

Ranga Dias, the professor of mechanical engineering and physics who led the research, didn’t hold back: he told interviewers that if the research pans out, the discovery could rank right up there with that of electricity and the wheel.


We’ll explain why room-temperature superconductors could be so revolutionary in a moment—but first, the backlash.

While many in the physics community were gobsmacked by the announcement, others said the science world needs to pump the brakes. Reactions “ranged from unbridled excitement to outright dismissal.” It turns out this research group is no stranger to controversy, up to and including accusations of research malfeasance (which are strongly denied by Dias).

Worse, the misconduct accusations center on a prior claim of room-temperature superconductivity by Dias’ team. So, it appears the wise course is to take a wait-and-see attitude while the physics community continues to try to reproduce and advance the University of Rochester results.

The Cognizant take

First, superconductors: These are materials that conduct direct-current electricity without energy loss—that is, resistance. Until not long ago, superconductors had to be cooled to extremely low temperatures in order to function.

More recently, “high-temperature” superconductors have been put to use, but the term is relative; even these superconductors require cooling that makes them difficult and expensive to apply in the field. (Commonwealth Edison experimented with high-temperature superconducting transmission lines in Chicago, but even though they carried 200 times the current of conventional lines, maintenance costs rendered them impractical.)

These realities clarify the potential of room-temperature superconductor capabilities: You get the benefits without most of the drawbacks.

And the benefits are indeed stunning. Room-temperature superconductivity could boost power grid efficiency, speed both wired and wireless communication, make MRIs more affordable, enable real-world magnetic-levitation trains … the applications are endless.

However, the science community’s misgivings about the University of Rochester’s announcement are serious, and bear watching. Superconductivity research is well established and ongoing; leaders should keep an eye on developments to see if grand claims can be verified.

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