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Superconductivity Breakthrough Puts Spotlight On UNLV Professor

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Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Photo Services

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, left, visits the lab of UNLV Assistant Physics Professor Ashkan “Ash” Salamat, whose research helped advance the understanding of electrical superconductivity.

Las Vegas has its share of celebrities, including one who works at the UNLV Physics Department.

Assistant Physics Professor Ashkan “Ash” Salamat’s pioneering work on electrical superconducting was recently featured on the cover of Nature magazine.

UNLV President Keith Whitfield praised the discovery in his state of the university address, and Gov. Steve Sisolak did likewise in his State of the State speech. And the governor even came by the physics lab for a tour.

Salamat collaborated on experiments that found superconductivity — the ability to transmit electricity without any loss of energy — at a higher temperature than in any past research. 

“The fact that we can observe such quantum phenomena at habitable conditions that are relevant for humans is just incredibly fascinating from a fundamental physics point of view, and it allows us to think about technology that could be completely beneficial to us,” he said.

One of the biggest breakthroughs with this technology is the electrical grid. 

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“If we can imagine a future where we go from energy grid at the moment, which loses about 5 to 8 percent to having an energy grid where there is no loss. This is critical,” he said.

With no energy loss through heat, a superconductor that could be used in ambient temperatures could mean a place like Nevada, with its nearly year-round sunshine, could supply power to the rest of the country, Salamat said.

“You could have solar farms here that could potentially feed the whole of North America and the United States itself,” he said.

Beyond the ability to conduct electricity without heat loss, Salamat said the superconductive material he and his colleague, Ranga Dias from the University of Rochester, discovered has other remarkable properties like a unique magnetism, which he compared to the hoverboard made famous in "Back to the Future II."

“This is a unique opportunity for us to really start projecting future technology,” he said.

He said with quantum material available in conditions habitable for humans the field is open to opportunities.

Right now, however, there is one drawback to those opportunities. The material is only in small devices. 

“The challenge ahead is to be able to open this device and allow the material to exist at ambient conditions not only in terms of temperature but also pressure, which is one of the perimeters we’ve been able to tune to get this state,” he said.

Salamat said they are probably years away from transferring the discovery into commercial technology.

Plus, while the idea of making the electrical grid more efficient is beneficial to everyone, Salamat said it would be a monumental undertaking.  

“If we’re really thinking of completely overhauling the energy grid, that is a huge commitment by both federal, local governments and the companies that own this infrastructure,” he said.

He believes eventually the world will adapt but the change won't be immediate.

Salamat and his colleague have only been working on lower temperature superconductivity for a few years. They meet at Harvard, and he said they're some of the younger people in their field, which gives them a fresh, unbiased view.

“We’ve only just started revving our engines. We’re very excited about what the future holds for us,” he said.

Salamat may have trained at Harvard but he loves UNLV. He said the environment allows him to be creative and unconstrained.

"The environment in which UNLV has allowed me to develop my scientific research program and the resources and the local talent that we have really needs to be highlighted here. This discovery couldn’t have happened on its own and the support construct around me has been critical,” he said.

With that said, Salamat said the university and the research being done there needs to be supported with resources.

“We really have to invest in fundamental research at the university level," he said, "I believe this is only part of the ensemble of discoveries here that we can progress and lead as a university.'

He told KNPR's State of Nevada that he is committed to staying at UNLV and growing his research and the research group around him. 

Guests

Ashkan “Ash” Salamat, UNLV assistant physics professor, superconductivity researcher

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