One of the holy grails of modern physics research is the discovery of materials that superconduct at room temperature. Superconductivity, a phenomenon in which a material carries an electrical current with zero resistance—that is, no loss of current to heat or other sources—is increasingly essential to technologies such as microwave communications, advanced MRI machines, and even the electromagnets in the Large Hadron Collider.
The discovery of a room-temperature superconductor would be revolutionary. Substituting the copper wires in our power grid with superconducting wires would entirely cut transmission losses and virtually eliminate power problems in high-density areas such as Manhattan.
This goal, however, remains elusive; no one has ever found a room temperature superconductor, and scientists don’t even really understand how most superconductors work.
Now Tyrel M. McQueen, assistant professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, has received a prestigious grant from Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) to synthesize and test new high-temperature superconducting (HTS) materials. As part of this effort, he will also try to advance our understanding of how this amazing phenomenon works, and whether a room-temperature superconductor is really possible.
“We seek to develop rational design principles for new and improved superconductors, materials that carry a direct electrical current with zero loss,” McQueen said.
Superconductivity is defined as the property of zero electrical resistance in a substance; it usually occurs at extremely low temperatures. It was first observed in 1911, in metallic mercury below 4 K (−452 °F).
In 1986, scientists discovered the first of the so-called “high-temperature” superconductors (HTS). The term “high temperature” is somewhat misleading— physicists and materials scientists define HTS as occurring above 35 K (-397 ºF) and beyond the boiling point of liquid nitrogen (-321 ºF). In recent years, HTS has been observed at temperatures as high as 138 K (−211 °F).
However, many aspects of these materials remain a mystery, including how they work and whether it is possible to create superconductors at higher temperatures.
That’s where McQueen and his RCSA grant come in.
To better understand these unique substances, he hopes to synthesize and characterize new materials that test the predictive capabilities of two new, highly complex theories regarding the origins of HTS.
One of those theories is a modified version of a long-standing theory holding that HTS occurs as the result of the interaction of electrons and “phonons,” vibrations in the crystal-lattice structure of certain superconducting materials. The other theory has to do with “antiferromagnetisim,” which occurs when the magnetic poles of atoms or molecules align in a regular pattern with neighboring poles pointing in opposite directions.
McQueen is conducting his research on the very edge of our understanding about superconductivity. Failure is a real possibility. But RCSA, America’s second-oldest philanthropy, “accepts risk as a necessary condition for funding early-stage discovery research because of its potential to catalytically advance science and concomitant high rewards for society,” said Jack Pladziewicz, the non-profit foundation’s interim president.
The Cottrell Scholar Award will also help fund McQueen’s goals as a chemistry teacher to expose students to hands-on experimentation. Specifically, he is creating a new integrated lecture and laboratory course, Chemical Structure and Bonding, for second-semester freshmen. The course is intended to develop students’ laboratory skills, particularly the ability to take concepts from “bookwork” and apply them in the laboratory.
The Cottrell Scholar Awards, instituted in 1994, are named in honor of Frederick Gardner Cottrell, scientist, inventor and philanthropist. Cottrell founded what is now RCSA in 1912 to provide support for scientific research and experimentation at scholarly institutions.
Outstanding early career teacher-scholars at Ph.D.-granting institutions are accepted into the Cottrell Scholar program following a rigorous peer-review process. Only about 10 percent of those who apply are successful.
Or, as RCSA’s Pladziewicz, says, “Not every faculty member in a research university can do both groundbreaking research and lead teaching improvement—but the very best can.”
There are currently more than 270 awardees in the U.S., and a number of them have recently formed the Cottrell Scholar Collaborative, a group that works to improve science education at American universities.