Graphene is the miracle cream of the physics world, with scientists all across the globe looking to unlock its powers. Researchers at the University of Cambridge believe they've found a way to transform the substance into a superconductor. Superconductors are nothing new, of course, but they normally have to be cooled to very low temperatures to be effective. In this experiment, however, the materials were left at the current temperature. Now, like so many graphene projects, it's still early days, but if it works, it could up-end the way we build electronics forever.
All materials have a level of resistance, which is a measure of the fight it puts up to stop electricity passing through it. A copper wire, for instance, has quite a low level, which is why it's used a lot to build electronics and computers. Wood's at the other end of the spectrum, at least when it's dry, which is why your smartphone isn't hewn from trees.
When electricity encounters a material with any level of resistance, it has to fight to get from one end of it to the other. Imagine trying to run down a crowded high school corridor when everyone else is walking the other way. Barging past all of those elbows and carried textbooks would cause you to expend energy, same as energy does in a wire. It's why your smartphone gets warm, because the bulk of the wasted power is converted into heat.
Superconductors are like that high school corridor, but completely empty, so you don't even break a sweat walking down them. That's good for the environment, good for your energy bill and good for pretty much everything else, too. Computer chips, for instance, would no longer need heatsinks and fans, making it an ideal component for a quantum computer.
The superconductors that we use today are predominantly employed inside MRI machines and on MagLev trains. But, as we've established, they only develop their useful properties when chilled down to extremely low temperatures. A superconductor that doesn't require a small nation's worth of refrigeration would be an immensely powerful thing indeed.
Scientists had long suspected that graphene could act as a superconductor, but couldn't work out a way to activate that ability. Previous experiments saw the substance "doped" with an existing superconducting material, which isn't as effective. This time out, graphene was coupled to praseodymium cerium copper oxide, a superconducting material in its own right.
Pairing the two in this manner also produced a result that the scientists weren't expecting: a possible p-wave form of superconductivity. This, again, could open up a new horizon in both scientific research and engineering. But, as with all of this, there's still lots of experiments, tests and studies that need to be performed before we'll know for sure.