In DNA, scientists find solution to build superconductor that could transform technology

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Scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and their collaborators have used DNA to overcome an almost insurmountable hurdle to engineering the materials that would revolutionize electronics.

A possible outcome of these engineered materials could be superconductors, which have zero electrical resistance, allowing electrons to flow unimpeded. This means that they do not waste energy or create heat, unlike current means of electrical transmission. The development of a superconductor that could be widely used at room temperature – instead of extremely high or low temperatures, as is now possible – could lead to ultra-fast computers, reduce the size of electronic devices, allow trains high speed to float on magnets and reduce energy consumption, among other benefits.

Such a superconductor was first proposed more than 50 years ago by Stanford physicist William A. Little. Scientists spent decades trying to make it work, but even after validating the feasibility of his idea, they were left with a challenge that seemed impossible to overcome. So far.

Edward H. Egelman, Ph.D., of UVA’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, was a leader in the field of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), and he and Leticia Beltran, graduate student in her lab, used cryo-EM imaging for this seemingly impossible project. “It demonstrates,” he said, “that the cryo-EM technique has great potential in materials research.”

Engineering at the Atomic Level

One possible way to realize Little’s idea for a superconductor is to modify arrays of carbon nanotubes, hollow cylinders of carbon so small they must be measured in nanometers, billionths of a meter. But there was a huge challenge: controlling the chemical reactions along the nanotubes so that the network could be assembled as precisely as needed and function as intended.

Egelman and his collaborators found an answer in the very building blocks of life. They took DNA, the genetic material that tells living cells how to function, and used it to guide a chemical reaction that would overcome Little’s Great Superconductor Barrier. In short, they used chemistry to achieve amazingly precise structural engineering – building at the level of individual molecules. The result was an array of carbon nanotubes assembled as needed for Little’s room-temperature superconductor.

“This work demonstrates that orderly modification of carbon nanotubes can be achieved by taking advantage of DNA sequence control over the spacing between adjacent reaction sites,” Egelman said.

The network they built has not yet been tested for superconductivity, but it offers proof of principle and has great potential for the future, the researchers say. “While cryo-EM has become the primary technique in biology for determining the atomic structures of protein assemblies, it has so far had much less impact in materials science,” said Egelman, whose earlier work led to his induction into the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors a scientist can receive.

Egelman and his colleagues say their DNA-guided approach to building networks could have a wide variety of useful research applications, particularly in physics. But it also validates the possibility of building Little’s room-temperature superconductor. The scientists’ work, combined with other breakthroughs in superconductors in recent years, could ultimately transform technology as we know it and lead to a much more “Star Trek” future.

“While we often think of biology using tools and techniques from physics, our work shows that approaches developed in biology can in fact be applied to problems in physics and engineering,” Egelman said. “That’s what’s so exciting about science: not being able to predict where our work will take us.”

The researchers published their findings in the journal Science.

Atomic-scale window on superconductivity paves the way for new quantum materials

More information:
Zhiwei Lin et al, DNA-guided network remodeling of carbon nanotubes, Science (2022). DOI: 10.1126/science.abo4628

Provided by the University of Virginia

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