Why is it important: Modern computers are based on semiconductors, in part because they can direct current in one direction. To do this in a superconductor has been considered impossible for more than a century, but researchers from the Netherlands have found a way. The discovery could make computers hundreds of times faster than they are now.

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This week, Delft University of Technology researchers published paper on how they achieved unidirectional superconductivity. This could allow computers to replace semiconductors with superconductors, which can conduct current indefinitely without losing energy, potentially increasing the speed of computers by orders of magnitude.

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According to Associate Professor Mazhar Ali, computers based on superconductors can reach speeds up to terahertz. Superconductivity may not be suitable for consumer computers any time soon, but Ali believes that server farms and supercomputers can implement it.

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Ali (center) with fellow researchers Dr. Yaojia Wang (left) and Dr. Heng Wu (right)

Normally, currents pass through superconductors without any resistance, making it impossible to stop or direct their flow. Ali He speaks his group was able to do this by placing quantum material between two semiconductors.

However, the research team has only tested the method at extremely low temperatures so far. Until now, any superconductor-based system using this process would have been extremely sensitive to heat. Ali’s team plans to test whether this method can work at temperatures above 77 kelvins (about -321 Fahrenheit), after which computers can use these superconductors with liquid nitrogen cooling. The next step is to figure out how to produce enough superconductors for the chip.

(In)possibility of using superconductivity

In the 20th century and beyond, no one could overcome the barrier that causes superconducting electrons to move in only one direction, which is a fundamental property required for computing and other modern electronics (remember, for example, diodes that also move in one direction). In normal conduction, electrons fly as separate particles; in superconductors they move in pairs of two without loss of electrical energy. In the 70s, IBM scientists tried the idea of ​​superconducting computing, but they had to stop their efforts: in their articles on this topic, IBM mentions that without nonreciprocal superconductivity, a computer running on superconductors is impossible.