Scientists create first computer-designed superconductor

October 8, 2013 by Rachel Coker
A schematic free energy landscape for different crystallographic configurations is given by the blue line. Note the small difference in energy between various structures compared with the total energy of a crystal demanding high computational accuracy. The application of pressure as done by Gou et al. will modify the energy landscape (red curve), potentially stabilizing new structures. The ground state (such as superconductivity, magnetism, or other forms of order) for a given structure is determined at even lower energy scales, as depicted in the inset. The addition of strong electronic correlations in some materials will further modify the landscape over large energy scales up to 10eV, making predictions even more challenging. Credit: APS/Alan Stonebraker

( —A Binghamton University scientist and his international colleagues report this week on the successful synthesis of the first superconductor designed entirely on the computer. Their findings were published in Physical Review Letters, the leading journal in the field.

Aleksey Kolmogorov, assistant professor of physics at Binghamton, proposed the new superconductor in Physical Review Letters in 2010 and then teamed up with leading experimental groups in Germany, Belgium, Italy and France to test the prediction.

The synthesized material—a novel iron tetraboride compound—is made out of two common elements, has a brand-new crystal structure and exhibits an unexpected type of superconductivity for a material that contains iron, just as predicted in the original computational study.

"Paradigm-shifting superconducting have so far been discovered experimentally, and oftentimes accidentally," Kolmogorov says.

Until now, theory has been used primarily to investigate superconducting mechanisms and, in rare cases, suggest ways that existing materials might be modified to become . But many proposed are not stable enough to form and those that do form are poor superconductors.

Superconductors, which conduct electric current without any resistance when cooled below a certain temperature, have many interesting applications. For instance, power lines made out of superconducting materials can significantly reduce the energy lost in transmission. Superconducting magnets are also used in high-speed levitating trains and could improve wind turbines.

The phenomenon of superconductivity was discovered more than 100 years ago, with breakthroughs in the 1960s bringing it into practical application in a variety of technologies. The critical temperature, or Tc, for superconductors discovered to date is between 0 and 136 Kelvin (-460 and -214 degrees Fahrenheit). This means that most superconductors require expensive cooling mechanisms. Scientists are still searching for new materials that are superconductors at higher temperatures and can be mass produced.

More than five years ago, Kolmogorov, then at Oxford University, began studying boron-based materials, which have remarkably complex structures and a wide range of applications. He developed an automated computational tool to identify previously unknown stable crystal structures without any input from experiment. His "evolutionary" algorithm emulates nature, meaning it favors more stable materials among thousands of possibilities. (Kolmogorov is a computational physicist, but he also dreams of holding a compound in his hands that he predicted in silico.)

The search revealed two promising compounds in a common iron-boron system, which came as a surprise. Moreover, graduate student Sheena Shah's calculations indicated that one of them should be a superconductor at an unusually high temperature of 15-20 Kelvin for the considered (so-called "conventional") type of superconductivity.

Months of double-checking confirmed the preliminary results on the stability and of the compound. Still, the 2010 theoretical discovery was met with skepticism.

Natalia Dubrovinskaia and Leonid Dubrovinsky, professors at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, undertook a year-long series of challenging high-pressure experiments and produced a very small quantity of iron tetraboride in the predicted , leading to the most recent journal article. Detailed measurements also demonstrated the material's predicted superconducting property and, unexpectedly, its exceptional hardness.

"The discovery of this superhard superconductor demonstrates that new compounds can be brought into existence by revisiting seemingly well-studied systems," Kolmogorov says. Now that this material has been synthesized, it may be possible to modify it and raise the temperature at which it becomes a superconductor.

Next, Kolmogorov plans to turn his attention to metal oxides. "They are fascinating because they have applications as catalysts, photovoltaic materials and protective coatings," he says. "We hope our predictive methodology will lead to more exciting discoveries."

Explore further: Prediction of superconductivity in compounds based on iridium oxide opens a new chapter for superconductors

More information: Discovery of a Superhard Iron Tetraboride Superconductor,

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not rated yet Oct 08, 2013
are still searching for new materials that are superconductors at higher temperatures and can be mass produced

When superconductor research first exploded in the 80's, I thought it would just be a matter of time before someone found one that worked at room temperature. Now I'm not so sure. The amount of time and money which has been spent on the search, much of it by private corporations, attests to the potential rewards for success. It would literally be worth trillions to the patent holder. However, after three decades of intense study, we still only find cold superconductivity. I'm actually starting to wonder if superconductivity can happen at room temperature and pressure now.

Is the search for room temperature superconductors the modern version of alchemy?
5 / 5 (5) Oct 08, 2013
Ah, not so fast there.

He has a disclaimer in the page you linked to regarding low volume fraction, and another disclaimer regarding stability.

"Low volume fraction" means that only a tiny portion of his sample material was superconducting. He hasn't ever gotten an actual bulk superconductor to work, and there's no way to know if such a thing is possible. He is simply picking up something that looks like a brief Meissner effect as something inside his sample cools.

He also notes that if you want to duplicate his experiment, you need to do your test immediately after sintering, because the material breaks down quickly.

All that stuff you said is theory, not fact, and it doesn't explain the mechanism, just the structure of some of the crystal lattices which can be superconductors. The confounding thing is that some crystals do and other similar crystals don't.

If Eck can get bulk superconductivity to remain stable, then he's got something. Right now it's just a neat curiosity
not rated yet Oct 08, 2013
Theoretical input has quite often been used for designing superconductors. General ideas on how to make high-Tc superconductors in layered structures were around since the 60s but it took decades until experimentalists created the high-Tc oxide materials. There have also been nice theoretical predictions on some elemental materials becoming superconductors under pressure.

According to this story, FeB4 is the first unknown material that was predicted from first principles to exist and to be a superconductor. Let's hope there will be more solid predictions to come, it will make the experimental work a lot easier.
5 / 5 (3) Oct 09, 2013
Yes, but I'm pretty sure, if he could prepare a monocrystal, this monocrystal would be conductive at room temperature without problem

There's no way to know if that's true or not, so your guess is just as good or bad as any other. One thing is certain; whatever phase of the material that's producing his apparent effect isn't stable. He's only getting a one-time effect that his magnetometer is picking up as the material cools. It may not even be true superconductivity, but an electron spin effect or something like that in stead. One molecule out of every few million isn't that good either way. It might mean that the effect is only possible if the surrounding molecules aren't superconductive. A single superconductive molecule surrounded by insulating molecules isn't going to be any use, and that would mean that a moncrystal wouldn't work.

I appreciate you enthusiastic optimism, but I don't think he's really any closer to success than anyone else.
4.2 / 5 (5) Oct 09, 2013
Joe Eck already had room temperature superconductor on his table, it was just too finely grained

He actually doesn't know what part of his material was superconducting or why, if it actually was a superconductor. It may not be the structure you think that's doing it, since the material goes through many changes as it cools and oxidizes from the pure oxygen flow he is using around it. He could be getting a superconductive effect that only lasts for the amount of time it takes for some reaction to happen. Maybe some portion of the compound forms crystals with a structure that temporarily simulates a super-cold state for a brief instant. Since we don't know, you cannot rule out anything.

There could be something else happening that's modifying the magnetic field, and keep in mind that although Eck is using very good equipment, it's barely able to detect the effect. That means he is right at the edge of the sensitivity of his equipment, where you risk getting phantom results
Oct 09, 2013
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Oct 09, 2013
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1 / 5 (9) Oct 12, 2013
Like GSwift said, Eck needs to provide more evidence if he's to be taken seriously. Although Eck has been correct in years of predictions about superconductors (He was 2 years ahead of the rest of the science community for a while) he has to provide us with something other than molecular contingencies.
1 / 5 (12) Oct 14, 2013
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1 / 5 (9) Oct 15, 2013
super computer............
1.4 / 5 (10) Nov 02, 2013
Actual crystal structure (Bs = smaller):

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