- A new structural engineering method guided by DNA could unlock room-temperature superconductors.
- This, in turn, would revolutionize countless scientific fields.
- More tests are needed, but the research offers a crucial proof of principle.
Scientists from the University of Virginia School of Medicine and collaborators used the building blocks of life to potentially revolutionize electronics.
The scientists utilized DNA to guide a chemical reaction that would overcome the barrier to Little's superconductor, which was once thought to be "insurmountable", a press statement reveals.
They used chemistry to perform incredibly precise structural engineering, allowing them to assemble a lattice of carbon nanotubes for Little's room-temperature superconductor.
Little's room-temperature superconductor
More than 50 years ago, Stanford physicist William A. Little proposed a type of superconductor that could be used at room temperature. This could potentially be used to enable hyper-fast computers and shrink the size of electronics devices, among a list of other benefits. In 2020, researchers from the University of Rochester revealed the first room-temperature superconductor, but high-pressure requirements make it difficult to utilize.
Edward H. Egelman, Ph.D., of UVA's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics and graduate student Leticia Beltran applied their knowledge in the field of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to the problem. Their work, outlined in a new paper in the journal Science, "demonstrates that the cryo-EM technique has great potential in materials research," Egelman explained.
The researchers set about trying to realize Little idea for a superconductor by modifying lattices of carbon nanotubes. The main obstacle was controlling the chemical reaction along the nanotubes so that the lattice could be assembled as precisely as possible. According to Egelman, their "work demonstrates that ordered carbon nanotube modification can be achieved by taking advantage of DNA-sequence control over the spacing between adjacent reaction sites."
Biological research applied to physics and engineering
The lattice the scientists built has not yet been tested for superconductivity, but it offers proof of principle, according to the researchers. "While cryo-EM has emerged as the main technique in biology for determining the atomic structures of protein assemblies, it has had much less impact thus far in materials science," Egelman described.
"While we often think of biology using tools and techniques from physics," Egelman added, "Our work shows that the approaches being developed in biology can actually be applied to problems in physics and engineering. This is what is so exciting about science: not being able to predict where our work will lead."
Egelman and his colleagues say their new DNA-enabled method could have a wide range of research applications in physics and materials science. Crucially, it could lead to the creation of Little's room-temperature superconductor, which could help revolutionize electronics. Their work, combined with other recent breakthroughs in superconductors, could unlock the great potential of quantum computing — which would, in turn, vastly improve countless scientific fields with its hyper-fast calculations.