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Salty sweat helps one desert plant stay hydrated
The Athel tamarisk excretes excess salt through its leaves. The buildup of salt crystals pulls water directly from the air, a study reports.
Chemists turned plastic waste into tiny bars of soap
Magnetic ‘rusty’ nanoparticles pull estrogen out of water, more stories in materials science.
This ‘thermal cloak’ keeps spaces from getting either too hot or cold
A new thermal fabric prototype could help keep cars, buildings and other spaces a comfortable temperature during heat waves while reducing CO₂ emissions.
Tear-resistant rubbery materials could pave the way for tougher tires
Adding easy-to-break molecular connectors surprisingly makes materials harder to tear and could one day reduce microplastic pollution from car tires.
This house was built partly from recycled diapers
Disposable diapers can replace nearly a third of the materials used in load-bearing structures, offering a potential path to more affordable housing.
A vegan leather made of dormant fungi can repair itself
Researchers developed a leather alternative made from dormant fungus that can be reanimated and then regrow when damaged.
A graphene “tattoo” could help hearts keep their beat
A proof-of-concept electronic heart tattoo relies on graphene to act as an ultrathin, flexible pacemaker. In rats, it treated an irregular heartbeat.
Here’s why some Renaissance artists egged their oil paintings
Some Renaissance artists created eggs-quisite paintings by adding yolks to oil paints, which may have helped add texture and prevent yellowing.
These transparent fish turn rainbow with white light. Now, we know why
Repeated structures in the ghost catfish’s muscles separate white light that passes through their bodies into different wavelengths.
These shape-shifting devices melt and re-form thanks to magnetic fields
Miniature machines made of gallium embedded with magnetic particles can switch between solid and liquid states.
Want a ‘Shrinky Dinks’ approach to nano-sized devices? Try hydrogels
Patterning hydrogels with a laser and then shrinking them down with chemicals offers a way to make nanoscopic structures out of many materials.
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Materials Science 32 articles archived since 1845
Nature Retracts Controversial Room-Temperature Superconductor Study
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The rise and fall of LK-99 offers a lesson on how to consider technology’s role in urgently needed energy transitions
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- 07 November 2023
Nature retracts controversial superconductivity paper by embattled physicist
- Davide Castelvecchi
You can also search for this author in PubMed Google Scholar
Physicist Ranga Dias is under investigation by his institution, the University of Rochester in New York. Credit: Lauren Petracca/New York Times/Redux/eyevine
Nature has retracted a controversial paper 1 claiming the discovery of a superconductor — a material that carries electrical currents with zero resistance — capable of operating at room temperature and relatively low pressure.
Why a blockbuster superconductivity claim met a wall of scepticism
The text of the retraction notice states that it was requested by eight co-authors. “They have expressed the view as researchers who contributed to the work that the published paper does not accurately reflect the provenance of the investigated materials, the experimental measurements undertaken and the data-processing protocols applied,” it says, adding that these co-authors “have concluded that these issues undermine the integrity of the published paper”. (The Nature news team is independent from its journals team.)
It is the third high-profile retraction of a paper by the two lead authors, physicists Ranga Dias at the University of Rochester in New York and Ashkan Salamat at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Nature withdrew a separate paper last year 2 and Physical Review Letters retracted one this August 3 . It spells more trouble in particular for Dias, whom some researchers allege plagiarized portions of his PhD thesis . Dias has objected to the first two retractions and not responded regarding the latest. Salamat approved the two this year.
“It is at this point hardly surprising that the team of Dias and Salamat has a third high-profile paper being retracted,” says Paul Canfield, a physicist at Iowa State University in Ames and at Ames National Laboratory. Many physicists had seen the Nature retraction as inevitable after the other two — and especially since The Wall Street Journal and Science reported in September that 8 of the 11 authors of the paper — including Salamat — had requested it in a letter to the journal.
Dias and Salamat did not respond to a request for comment by Nature ’s news team. The retraction states that he and two other co-authors — Nugzari Khalvashi-Sutter and Sasanka Munasinghe, both at Rochester — "have not stated whether they agree or disagree with this retraction".
This year’s report by Dias and Salamat is the second significant claim of superconductivity to crash and burn in 2023. In July, a separate team at a start-up company in Seoul described 4 , 5 a crystalline purple material dubbed LK-99 — made of copper, lead, phosphorus and oxygen — that they said showed superconductivity at normal pressures and at temperatures up to at least 127 °C (400 kelvin). There was much online excitement and many attempts to reproduce the results, but researchers quickly reached a consensus that the material was not a superconductor at all .
LK-99 isn’t a superconductor — how science sleuths solved the mystery
Superconductors are important in many applications, from magnetic resonance imaging machines to particle colliders, but their use has been limited by the need to keep them at extremely low temperatures. For decades, researchers have been developing new materials with the dream of finding one that exhibits superconductivity without any refrigeration.
Specialists in the field have been sceptical since this year’s Dias and Salamat paper was published, says Lilia Boeri, a physicist at the Sapienza University of Rome. This, she says, is in part because of controversies swirling around the team and in part because the latest paper was not written to what she considers a high standard.
“Virtually every serious condensed-matter physicist I know saw right away that there were serious problems with the work,” says Peter Armitage, an experimental physicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In particular, members of the community took issue with measurements of the material’s electrical resistance, saying it was not clear whether the property truly dropped to zero, or whether Dias and Salamat had subtracted a background signal from a key plot of resistance to create the appearance that it did. Critics say that it should not be necessary to remove background from this type of measurement. In today's text, the journal stated, "An investigation by the journal and post-publication review have concluded that these concerns are credible, substantial and remain unresolved."
Stunning room-temperature-superconductor claim is retracted
Armitage adds that the publication of the paper also raises questions about the editorial review process at Nature , and why reviewers didn’t catch the issues.
“The highly qualified expert reviewers we selected raised a number of questions about the original submission, which were largely resolved in later revisions,“ says Karl Ziemelis, chief physical sciences editor at Nature . “What the peer-review process cannot detect is whether the paper as written accurately reflects the research as it was undertaken.”
“Decisions about what to accept for publication are not always easy to make,” Ziemelis continues. “And there may be conflicts, but we strive to take an unbiased position and to ensure the interests of the community always drive our deliberations.”
Nature published the now-retracted paper on 8 March. That week, Dias himself presented the results to a standing-room-only audience at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Las Vegas. Over the audible clamour of the crowd assembled outside the room’s doors — where conference staff limited entry to avoid violating fire regulations — Dias briefly described a compound made of hydrogen, lutetium and small amounts of nitrogen that was a superconductor at temperatures up to 21 °C (294 kelvin) when kept at a pressure of around 1 gigapascal (10,000 times atmospheric pressure).
‘A very disturbing picture’: another retraction imminent for controversial physicist
Many teams had already created and experimented with similar hydrogen-rich materials, called hydrides, after a milestone discovery in 2015. A group led by physicist Mikhail Eremets at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, reported 6 superconductivity in a hydrogen–sulfur compound at −70 °C (203 kelvin); at the time, this was a record-high operating temperature for a superconductor. But Eremets’s material required a much higher pressure of 145 gigapascals (1.4 million times atmospheric pressure) — comparable to the crushing conditions at the centre of Earth.
Since then, researchers have made hydride superconductors that push closer and closer to operating at room temperature, but all of them work only under extreme pressures. When Dias and Salamat published their paper in Nature in March, they seemed to have made a significant step towards a material that could find practical applications.
But some specialists were already wary because of the first Nature retraction . And some say they immediately found the fresh claims to be improbable. For instance, the material described in the paper was supposed to have around three hydrogen atoms for every lutetium atom. But if so, the lutetium would tend to donate an electron to each hydrogen, resulting in a kind of salt, says Artem Oganov, a materials scientist at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. “You get either an insulator or an extremely poor metal,” he says — not a superconductor.
One lab says it has partially reproduced Dias and Salamat’s results using a sample provided by the Rochester team 7 . But many others, which tried creating their own samples and running tests, could not. And in the meantime, other causes for concern have arisen. An investigation launched by Physical Review Letters before it retracted its paper by Dias and Salamat found “apparent data fabrication”, as Nature ’s news team reported in July . And an investigation launched by Nature ’s journals team after it received an anonymous critique of data in this year’s paper found that “the credibility of the published results are in question”, according to September’s news story in Science .
Armitage does not think that Dias and Salamat will be able to keep doing research, pointing to the investigation findings and allegations of plagiarism in Dias’s PhD thesis. The University of Rochester has confirmed to Nature that it has launched an investigation into the integrity of Dias’s work, which is being conducted now by external experts. The university’s spokesperson did not answer questions about whether the institution has yet disciplined Dias. UNLV did not answer Nature ’s queries about whether Salamat is being investigated, saying that “UNLV does not publicly discuss personnel matters”, but that it “is committed to maintaining the highest standards for research integrity campus wide”.
How would room-temperature superconductors change science?
Canfield says that the Dias–Salamat collaboration has spread a “foul vapour” over the field, which “is scaring young researchers and funding agencies away”.
“I have some colleagues who simply are afraid that this case of Dias puts a shadow of doubt on the credibility of our field in general,” Eremets says.
Ho-Kwang Mao, director of the Center for High Pressure Science and Technology Advanced Research in Beijing, is more sanguine. “I do not think it will affect the funding for superconductivity research other than more careful reviews, which is not necessarily bad,” he says.
Hai-Hu Wen, director of the Center for Superconducting Physics and Materials at Nanjing University in China, agrees. “Actually, it seems more easy to get funding for the research of superconductivity since some government officials seem to be influenced by the expectation of a room-temperature superconductor,” he says.
But Boeri says she has heard researchers complain that the controversies — the allegations of PhD thesis plagiarism and the findings of apparent data fabrication — have made it harder to recruit students to work on superconductors. “We face a serious communication problem, to make people understand that the field is healthy — that although there may be some bad apples, the community’s standards are much higher,” she says.
“Serious people continue to do amazing and interesting work,” Armitage says. “Sure, they can be disheartened by this nonsense, but it won’t stop the science.”
Additional reporting by Lauren Wolf.
Dasenbrock-Gammon, N. et al. Nature 615 , 244–250 (2023); retraction https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06774-2 (2023).
Article Google Scholar
Snider, E. et al. Nature 586 , 373–377 (2022); retraction 610 , 804 (2022).
Durkee, D. et al. Phys. Rev. Lett. 127 , 016401 (2021); retraction 131 , 079902 (2023).
Lee, S. et al. Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/2307.12037 (2023).
Lee, S., Kim, J.-H. & Kwon, Y.-W. Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/2307.12008 (2023).
Drozdov, A. P., Eremets, M. I., Troyan, I. A., Ksenofontov, V. & Shylin, S. I. Nature 525 , 73–76 (2015).
Salke, N. P., Mark, A. C., Ahart, M. & Hemley, R. J. Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/2306.06301 (2023).
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Engineered ‘living materials’ could help clean up water pollution one day
Professor of Nanoengineering, University of California, San Diego
Postdoctoral Scholar in Nanoengineering, University of California, San Diego
Jonathan K. Pokorski receives funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy.
Debika Datta does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of California, San Diego provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
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Water pollution is a growing concern globally, with research estimating that chemical industries discharge 300-400 megatonnes (600-800 billion pounds) of industrial waste into bodies of water each year.
As a team of materials scientists , we’re working on an engineered “living material” that may be able to transform chemical dye pollutants from the textile industry into harmless substances.
Water pollution is both an environmental and humanitarian issue that can affect ecosystems and human health alike. We’re hopeful that the materials we’re developing could be one tool available to help combat this problem.
Engineering a living material
The “ engineered living material ” our team has been working on contains programmed bacteria embedded in a soft hydrogel material. We first published a paper showing the potential effectiveness of this material in Nature Communications in August 2023.
The hydrogel that forms the base of the material has similar properties to Jell-O – it’s soft and made mostly of water. Our particular hydrogel is made from a natural and biodegradable seaweed-based polymer called alginate , an ingredient common in some foods .
The alginate hydrogel provides a solid physical support for bacterial cells, similar to how tissues support cells in the human body. We intentionally chose this material so that the bacteria we embedded could grow and flourish.
We picked the seaweed-based alginate as the material base because it’s porous and can retain water. It also allows the bacterial cells to take in nutrients from the surrounding environment.
After we prepared the hydrogel, we embedded photosynthetic – or sunlight-capturing – bacteria called cyanobacteria into the gel.
The cyanobacteria embedded in the material still needed to take in light and carbon dioxide to perform photosynthesis , which keeps them alive. The hydrogel was porous enough to allow that, but to make the configuration as efficient as possible, we 3D-printed the gel into custom shapes – grids and honeycombs. These structures have a higher surface-to-volume ratio that allow more light, CO₂ and nutrients to come into the material.
The cells were happy in that geometry. We observed higher cell growth and density over time in the alginate gels in the grid or honeycomb structures when compared with the default disc shape.
Cleaning up dye
Like all other bacteria, cyanobacteria has different genetic circuits , which tell the cells what outputs to produce. Our team genetically engineered the bacterial DNA so that the cells created a specific enzyme called laccase .
The laccase enzyme produced by the cyanobacteria works by performing a chemical reaction with a pollutant that transforms it into a form that’s no longer functional. By breaking the chemical bonds, it can make a toxic pollutant nontoxic. The enzyme is regenerated at the end of the reaction, and it goes off to complete more reactions.
Once we’d embedded these laccase-creating cyanobacteria into the alginate hydrogel, we put them in a solution made up of industrial dye pollutant to see if they could clean up the dye. In this test, we wanted to see if our material could change the structure of the dye so that it went from being colored to uncolored. But, in other cases, the material could potentially change a chemical structure to go from toxic to nontoxic.
The dye we used, indigo carmine , is a common industrial wastewater pollutant usually found in the water near textile plants – it’s the main pigment in blue jeans. We found that our material took all the color out of the bulk of the dye over about 10 days.
This is good news, but we wanted to make sure that our material wasn’t adding waste to polluted water by leaching bacterial cells. So, we also engineered the bacteria to produce a protein that could damage the cell membrane of the bacteria – a programmable kill switch.
The genetic circuit was programmed to respond to a harmless chemical, called theophylline , commonly found in caffeine, tea and chocolate. By adding theophylline, we could destroy bacterial cells at will.
The field of engineered living materials is still developing, but this just means there are plenty of opportunities to develop new materials with both living and nonliving components.
- Water pollution
- Materials science
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