Welcome back to Greenwashed! 👋
The internet was set ablaze this week by an exciting but controversial paper (companion found here) released on arXiv by researchers from South Korea.
The paper claims to have discovered a material that achieves superconductivity at room temperature, which would be a monumental discovery that could improve our position in the fight against the climate crisis by orders of magnitude. 📈
Claims that sound too good to be true often are, and this paper has been embroiled in controversy all week. Below, we examine this potential discovery in full. ⬇️
Why Does This Matter? 🤔
Most of our world is powered by electronics, from the devices we use to work and communicate with our loved ones to the power grid that sustains all of our economic and social activity. Electricity flows through currents; some materials are good at conducting it, some are not. ⚡️
Superconductors are materials that conduct electrical current without any resistance, meaning they are the most efficient material to build, well, pretty much anything out of. One problem though: superconductors require extremely high pressures and extremely low temperatures to operate successfully; this is why all of the world's quantum computers exist only in rooms with specialized dilution refrigeration.
A superconductor that could operate at room temperature would unlock an insane amount of applications, many of which are extremely relevant to the climate crisis.
Transmission lines that would immediately upgrade the speed and efficiency of the energy grid by at least 20%,
Magnetic levitating high-speed trains that would make automobile and air travel, two of the highest-emitting forms of transportation, significantly less relevant and economically efficient,
Computation that would run with orders of magnitude lower power consumption, which would not just save energy but also enable machine learning to access previously untenable levels of compute,
High-resolution imaging techniques that could be used to drastically improve carbon credit verification, as well as new sensors to improve environmental data collection, and
Compact, affordable fusion reactors that would significantly scale nuclear energy.
That doesn't even cover all of the other more indirectly climate-related applications, like material structure analyses to scale synthetic biology, deep-space radio astrophysics, and personal desktop quantum computers. 😦
If this sounds insane, it's because it is--this would easily be the discovery of the century so far. Room-temp superconductors have been called the holy grail of materials science, and if it's actually legitimate, the 21st century might actually somehow avoid disaster. Or, as a16z's Ryan McEntush put it:
Are We "So Very Back", Though? 🧐
As soon as this came out, every researcher in the world began attempting to replicate it--which is a lot of them, since the materials needed are really cheap and accessible (another reason this would be such a big deal if true). So far, no one has, and that's not the only aspect of the superconductor saga that should make you feel less excited. 🙃
Room-temp superconductors have been a goal of material science for years, and many papers in the past have claimed the answer and since been retracted. An anonymous Russian scientist has claimed to have replicated it, as well as a Chinese researcher, but these are more likely to be false claims in order to save the appearance of not falling behind Western science.
Additionally, there's been a lot of drama from the research team. Originally a team of six, three broke off and rushed to publish the paper on their own. Some theorize that this is because the Nobel prize can only be split between three people, others point to this as evidence that the paper has flaws in the research design that led to disagreements about publishing it. 🏆
Prediction markets seem to be pessimistic; they give it less than a 1 in 5 chance to replicate successfully by 2025 and a 77% chance that the paper will be retracted.
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