Even if the general public doesn’t always realize it, teams of experts are consistently researching ways to make better parts for supercomputers.
They know that technology is advancing quickly and society will need devices that can handle the latest uses of the best computers available.
A Much-Improved Material for Electroplating
Last fall, Don David teamed up with colleagues Dave Pappas and Xian Wu and together the three researchers turned their attention to materials used for supercomputer components. They ultimately discovered a new electroplating material that seems ideal for supercomputers because it’s workable at temperatures that are easier to obtain than previously available options.
Electroplating involves sending an electrical current through an aqueous solution comprised of dissolved metal, which adds a metal coating to a submerged object. The team had been pondering the possibilities associated with giving gold and copper films superconducting properties.
In this case, they ultimately used an extremely thin layer of rhenium instead, placed between layers of gold that are each only one-one thousandth the diameter of a strand of human hair.
Why Does the Electroplated Rhenium Work So Well for Supercomputers?
Understanding why this team’s achievement is such a breakthrough for supercomputing involves understanding how a superconductor functions. A superconductor’s material has no electrical resistance if cooled to a particular temperature.
Ordinarily, though, that level is so low that it’s quite difficult and expensive to reach. The difference between earlier electroplated substances and the rhenium version is that the latter begins superconducting at temperatures higher than six Kelvin — a level that is comparatively easier to achieve.
One thing devices ranging from smartphones to cars to computers have in common is circuit boards. Each circuit board contains thousands of pathways used by electrons that carry out a device’s functions in the form of electrical pulses. In a conventional computer, the movement of the electrical pulses becomes suppressed by the board’s material. When electrical resistance occurs, the electrons slow down and the resultant energy becomes heat.
However, since a superconductor has no electrical resistance if kept at the critical temperature, it does not have that heat energy. Therefore, computers containing superconductors are typically quite fast and powerful compared to their conventional counterparts.
Scientists have previously worked with other materials including mercury and lead when developing better superconductors. However, those options aren’t easy to work with and melt when temperatures become too low.
In contrast, rhenium is more user-friendly when used for mechanical purposes and it has one of the highest melting points of all elements on the periodic table, making it more stable when used during the conditions described above.
How This Achievement Could Help Supercomputers in Development
A machine called “Summit” is one of the fastest supercomputers in the world and scientists want to use it to help answer questions related to astrophysics. However, there is an ongoing push to create supercomputers that are faster still, and rhenium-based electroplating could become instrumental in helping them meet goals and thereby build equipment that’s more capable than ever.
Outside of supercomputers, experts assert that superconductors could be advantageous for long-distance transmission of electrical power. Utility companies have balked at the idea for generations, raising concerns about manufacturing difficulties and associated expenses.
Could rhenium electroplating overcome those challenges? It’s too soon to say, but some of the characteristics associated with rhenium seem promising.
Superconductors are also necessary for magnetically levitating “maglev” trains, which could dramatically reduce travel times for passengers. When cooled to the proper temperature, superconducting magnets produce magnetic fields that are up to 10 times stronger than conventional electromagnets.
The Potential for Widespread Use
The team that made the rhenium electroplating discovery reports it’s suitable for mass production due to being easily scalable.
Also, the scientists applied for a provisional patent to protect their work. Reports also mention there are already companies interested in bringing the highly-advanced electroplating material to their own work.
Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.