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An international team of researchers has discovered the hydrogen atoms in a metal hydride material are much more tightly spaced than had been predicted for decades — a feature that could possibly facilitate superconductivity at or near room temperature and pressure.
Such a superconducting material, carrying electricity without any energy loss due to resistance, would revolutionize energy efficiency in a broad range of consumer and industrial applications.
The scientists conducted neutron scattering experiments at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory on samples of zirconium vanadium hydride at atmospheric pressure and at temperatures from -450 degrees Fahrenheit (5 K) to as high as -10 degrees Fahrenheit (250 K) — much higher than the temperatures where superconductivity is expected to occur in these conditions.
Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, detail the first observations of such small hydrogen-hydrogen atomic distances in the metal hydride, as small as 1.6 angstroms, compared to the 2.1 angstrom distances predicted for these metals.
The breakthrough in understanding occurred after the team began working with the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility to develop a strategy for evaluating the data. The OLCF at the time was home to Titan, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, a Cray XK7 system that operated at speeds up to 27 petaflops (27 quadrillion floating point operations per second).
“ORNL is the only place in the world that boasts both a world-leading neutron source and one of the world’s fastest supercomputers,” said Timmy Ramirez-Cuesta, team lead for ORNL’s chemical spectroscopy team. “Combining the capabilities of these facilities allowed us to compile the neutron spectroscopy data and devise a way to calculate the origin of the anomalous signal we encountered. It took an ensemble of 3,200 individual simulations, a massive task that occupied around 17% of Titan’s immense processing capacity for nearly a week — something a conventional computer would have required ten to twenty years to do.”