Physics Breakthrough: Could We Be A Step Closer To Flying Trains?

By Tessa Dunthorne

10 months ago

A new physics breakthrough shows promise for sustainable, greener technologies


Korean researchers have allegedly created the world’s first room temperature superconductor – say hello to the future (and maybe flying trains?). Tessa Dunthorne breaks down everything we know so far – and what this might mean for sustainable technology

Could We Be A Step Closer To Flying Trains?

What Is A Superconductor? And Why Does It Matter If It’s Room Temperature?

Cast your mind back to your Physics GCSE: a conductor is a material which allows electricity to flow from one place to another (2 marks!). We often see them in wires, transporting electricity from power plants to our homes, or in motors, lighting and cooking appliances.

You’ll notice that when electrical objects run, they often emit heat. Take, for example, your phone when you’ve scrolled social media for too long – or your laptop trying to open Photoshop. As these objects work, some of their energy escapes as heat. This is considered wasted energy, and is thanks to resistance in the conductor.

The distinction between a conductor and superconductor is that a superconductor transmits electricity without this wasted energy – in other words, its material faces no resistance, and will never generate any heat as electricity passes through it.

Until July 2023, the superconductors that scientists had created could only work at extremely low temperatures. A room temperature superconductor has been a long-sought goal for physicists because it could revolutionise our energy industries – and, increasingly, because this technology could very well allow us to mitigate the effects of climate change.

What’s The Discovery?

On 22 July 2023, scientists from Korea University, Sukbae Lee, Ji-Hoon Kim and Young-Wan Kwon, published a pre-print paper detailing an exciting discovery: they’ve created the world’s first room temperature superconductor using a material dubbed ‘LK-99’.

Why Is This Significant?

If proven through reproduction, the LK-99 room temperature superconductor could have seriously positive repercussions for energy and the development of future technologies.

Revolutionising The Energy Industry

Electricity transmitted over a superconductor would face little to no resistance, so could be transported over long distances very efficiently. This will impact sustainability because there will be less waste, and therefore less additional energy would need to be generated. In turn, this would lead to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions from power generation.

This technology could also help us better integrate renewable energy into the national energy grid, as one current challenge faced is how far renewable sources are from population centres.

The Possibility Of Levitating Trains And Hoverboards

The stuff of Sci-Fi could be close. We already have levitating trains in Japan, South Korea and China: maglev trains, which use magnetic fields to levitate. However, they’re currently not cost-efficient to run, and they require complex cryogenic cooling systems to work.

A rollout of room temperature superconductors could allow these trains to run with vastly less energy consumption (and pollution), and no need for the cooling system – making them much more accessible pieces of technology.

It’s possible, too, that the development of this technology could allow the invention of true hoverboards. Currently theoretical, hoverboards would be made up of a platform made of room temperature superconducting material. Placed above a magnetised surface, the board would repel from the ground, levitating.

Reducing Our Digital Carbon Footprints

Did you know that your digital activity has a carbon footprint? Any data stored in a server (e.g. your emails) has a climate impact – and a large part of that impact actually comes from the need to cool data centres. These centres are constantly on, consuming huge quantities of electricity and shedding heat in the process. To keep these spaces cool, companies often base in cold places (which has an impact on local biodiversity and ecosystems) or employ large fan systems.

A superconductor eradicates the significant carbon impact of our digital activities, through optimisation of these spaces and servers.

What Are People Saying?

Twitter is abuzz with users discussing its significance – and speculating that this discovery could lead to researchers receiving a Nobel prize in Physics.

 

Other Twitter users have speculated that the papers were rushed out quickly because the discovery was at risk of being ‘scooped’.

Should We Be Dubious?

While exciting – and a hopeful discovery – the paper that was submitted is pre-print, which means it has yet to go through peer review. Similar work has faced serious scrutiny, and been disproven at this stage. The work of one University of Rochester researcher, who claimed to discover a similar superconductor in 2021, saw his paper recently retracted upon the discovery of errors and data fabrication.

Further to this, some reports on the discovery have said we should be sceptical – an article published by the New Scientist yesterdayan article published by the New Scientist yesterday consulted a number of scientists who criticise a lack of certain measurements in the findings, and the LK-99 sample as ‘imperfect’.

In addition, if the discovery cannot be repeated or scaled, its practical impact in the immediate will be minimal.