Many sci-fi promises of our electrified future rely on one important technology: superconductors. These materials are so vital because they exhibit zero electrical resistance, meaning a current can theoretically flow through them forever. That’s an amazingly useful attribute if you want to, say, run MRI machines, create ultra-efficient energy grids, or help build fusion reactors.

Sound too good to be true? Well, unfortunately, it kind of is. Superconductors require bone-shatteringly cold temperatures (as in, approaching absolute zero, or -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, cold) to tap into those zero electrical resistance superpowers.

Decades after the discovery of superconductors in 1911, scientists figured out that materials (usually metalloids or alloys) needed to be close to absolute zero to exhibit these exciting properties. But in 1986, new materials called copper oxides, or “cuprates,” were discovered to be superconductive at far warmer temperatures. Today, the highest temperature for a superconductor at ambient pressure is -225 degrees Fahrenheit—still cold, but nowhere near absolute zero.

This discovery shocked scientists, and in the decades since, they haven’t quite been able to piece together why these cuprates can achieve superconductivity at such relatively high temperatures. Now, scientists at the Simons Foundation in New York City are taking a crack at explaining this quantum mystery using a familiar model. Usually used in solid-state physics, the 2D Hubbard Model (named after British physicist John Hubbard) looks at materials as if they’re a collection of electrons on a flat quantum chessboard.

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