OZY Genius Award winners pursue secrets of superconductors, hoping to revolutionize electronics

Two years ago, as Case Western Reserve University Professor Harsh Mathur finished his lecture on superconductivity to his introductory physics class, he suggested that maybe one of the students in the audience would solve the 100-year-old challenge of superconducting at room temperature.
 
Electrical engineering student Sylvester Amponsah, then a sophomore, felt as if Mathur were talking to him directly, and thought, “Why not me?”
 
At extremely cold temperatures, superconductors allow electrical current to pass without resistance. But if they could be made to work at room temperature, superconductors could revolutionize electronics, much as semiconductors did in the last century, and lead to a highly efficient electrical power grid and more.

Amponsah sought out other students who shared his interest, and a core group began meeting weekly to discuss published research on superconductors. Eventually, they asked Mathur, a theorist, and physics Professor Mike Martens, an experimentalist, to work with them. The professors agreed.
 
“They had so much momentum,” Mathur said, “I couldn’t say ‘no.’”
 
This summer, Amponsah, now a senior, and three classmates are using a $10,000 OZY Genius Award to investigate the prospects for room temperature superconducting technology. Among their first tasks, the undergraduate researchers are compiling a database of known superconductors and their atomic scale properties, seeking clues to a mix of elements that might superconduct at warmer temperatures.
 
They also will be working in the lab, making measurements on superconductors, and collaborating with Martens on magnesium diboride, a new superconductor that Martens hopes will be used for making magnetic resonance imaging magnets in the future.
 
Thirty elements and a growing list of compounds are known superconductors, allowing electrons to flow through without losing energy—but at temperatures of minus 164 degrees Fahrenheit and often much colder.
 
While Amponsah, an electrical engineering major, was named as one of 10 OZY “geniuses,” he applied to the award sponsor, the international online magazine OZY, jointly with Case Western Reserve seniors Fred Li and Sergio Martinez and junior Justo Karell.
 
In short, they told the judges superconductors will change the world, and that they were the guys to do it.
 
“This project is very much driven by the students,” who are asking questions other researchers haven’t, Mathur said. “This is the kind of thing you hope will happen when you give a talk.”
 
Research on superconductors has led to four Nobel Prizes, but how they work is not completely understood.
 
The OZY award is helping to pay for them to work on campus through summer, and may be used to buy lab equipment needed for their experiments.
 
“It doesn’t stop here,” Amponsah said. “We hope the interest and effort attract more students, funding and maybe faculty to see what we can do.”