Superconductors, materials where electrical current can flow with zero resistance, have been known to exist for over a century. The problem was actually finding them.
Aleksey Kolmogorov, an assistant physics professor at Binghamton University, spent more than three years using computer algorithms to find stable element compounds that can be synthesized into superconductors.
“What we’re trying to do is use a local 200-core computer cluster using the MAISE algorithm that was developed in my group. This is an evolutionary code which selects specific new combinations of elements that can be synthesized,” he said. “Three years ago, our team found a new stable iron boride material that could be a superconductor with a critical temperature of 15 to 20 Kelvin.”
At the time his work drew skepticism from peers.
“Three years ago, no one could believe us because we had presented such common elements as iron and boron,” he said. “Such theoretical findings are exceptionally rare, and there have apparently been no predicted new superconducting materials confirmed by experiment.”
After a year of experimenting, Kolmogorov’s collaborators in Germany were able to synthesize and produce a material with the composition, structure and properties that Kolmogorov’s model specified.
“The iron boride is, thus, the first discovered superconductor to have been designed entirely on the computer,” he said.
Michael Lawler, an assistant physics professor at BU, said the goal for scientists was to find higher and higher temperatures at which superconductors could operate.
“Superconductors need to be cooled to act in full, and the goal is to find ones that have higher critical temperatures,” he said. “If room temperature is 300 Kelvin then the highest critical temperature we’ve reached is about 150 Kelvin.”
Lawler said that while the critical temperature of Kolmogorov’s initial experiment was low, computer-generated results could generate more superconductors in the future.
“This is the first time a computer-designed superconductor has been tested and proved to work,” he said. “So the hope is that if we’ve done this once, we can find a conductor with a higher critical temperature.”
Kolmogorov said that such superconductors could have many uses in the future.
“Approximately 10 percent of energy is wasted in power lines,” Kolmogorov said. “There have been many attempts to use superconductors but as of right now there are still major problems.”
Lawler agreed and offered more possibilities.
“Transporting electricity from New York to LA might be pretty costly. But using superconductors for power inside a city itself could be a competitive business,” he said. “Superconductors are also used in cellphone towers because they can reflect light and electromagnetic waves.”
Students unfamiliar with the research expressed interest in the results of Kolmogorov’s work.
“That’s really cool, I admire the work that takes to just calculate a new superconductor,” said Itai Ferber, a sophomore majoring in computer science. “Even with a 200 computer cluster that still is probably very difficult.”