Mazhar Ali at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands just discovered how to make electrons travel in pairs along a wire with zero resistance and in one direction only without the use of magnetic fields.
Scientists thought such a feat to be impossible.
Imagine holding a copper wire. Now imagine running your finger down it. You feel a lot of friction and heat. But you can't, even if you want to, move your finger back up the wire.
In normal semiconductor computer chips, electrons run in only one direction like your finger on the copper wire. There's significant resistance, though, causing slow-downs in the speed of computing, loss of energy (giving off heat), and increases in the energy computers require.
In "superconductor computer chips," electrons run along wires with no resistance or friction whatsoever. Dutch physicist Kamerlingh Onnes discovered "super-conduction" way back in 1911.
But scientists couldn't keep the electrons moving orderly in one direction only. They ran amok back and forth along the wire. Computers can't function if the electrons that encode their data randomly and chaotically zip back-and-forth. Magnetic fields could direct the electrons, but then you're using more energy, not less, to keep the electrons in line.
The discovery of Mazhar Ali and his team, published in the prestigious journal Nature, demonstrates how to get electrons to "super-conduct" in orderly pairs in one direction only without resorting to magnetic fields.
The breakthrough makes possible super-conductor computer chips that operate hundreds of times faster and use less energy.
Previous attempts at super-conducting computer chips used a "sandwich" of super-conducting metals and non-conducting metals. The latter acted as a barrier, or filter screen, that enabled electrons to move one way through the computer chip but not the other way. With magnetic fields helping, they could work.
Ali and his team used new materials for the "meat" of the "sandwich." Their layers of "meat," or non-conducting metals, were only a few atoms thick. Sub-atomic interactions in these quantum-sized 2D layers of metals enabled the one-directional movement of electrons without magnetic fields.
The innovation could be used to make computers 300-400 times faster. Supercomputers, especially quantum computing, could become far more powerful. Server farms could improve and realize energy savings.
Personal computers and smartphones won't become 300-400 times faster in the foreseeable future, but they may become much faster thanks to 300-400x computers at server farms.
Still, Ali says, the coming century could be "the century of the super-conductor."
“The field-free Josephson diode in a van der Waals heterostructure” 27 April 2022, Nature.