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Published by Amit Kumar

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Published by: Amit Kumar on Nov 17, 2012
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What Are Superconductors? 
As most people know the component of an electrical circuit that causes energy loss is called"resistance," which can be defined as a materials opposition to current being passed throughit. Usually, this resistance results in the production of heat, sound, or another form of energy.In many cases, this transformation of energy is useful in such applications as toasters, heaters,and light bulbs. Even though it is a useful property, resistance often gets in the way of performance in such cases as high voltage transmission wires, electric motor output, andother cases where internal system energy losses are unwanted. This is where the phenomenonof superconducting materials comes into play and may present the solution to this energy lossproblem.Superconductors are materials that display zero resistance under certain conditions. Theseconditions are called the "critical temperature" and "critical field," denoted Tc and Hcrespectively. The Tc is the highest temperature state the material can attain and remainsuperconductive. The Hc is the highest magnetic field the material can be exposed to beforereverting to its normal magnetic state. Within the substances currently known tosuperconduct, there is a divide between what has come to be called type I and type IIsuperconductors. Type I are composed of pure substances, usually metals, and type II arecomposite compounds, usually some sort of ceramic.Additional differences between type I and type II exist, mainly that type II displaysuperconducting qualities at much higher temperatures and can remain superconductive in thepresence of much higher magnetic fields. While type I have Tc's that hover just a few degreesfrom absolute zero, type II can have Tc's of over 130 K. The graph below shows how type Iand type II superconductors compare as related to Tc and Hc:The difference in magnetic fields is also quite large. Type I superconductors can stand fieldsup to approximately 2000 Gauss, which translates to about .2 Tesla, while type II can withstand fields of up to several hundred thousand Gauss, which translates to more than 10 Tesla.The magnetic field for any temperature below the Tc is given by the follwoing eqution:
Bc ≈ Bc(0) * [1
- (T/Tc)^2]
In the early 1900's a duch physicist by the name of Heike Kammerlingh Onnes (picturedabove), discovered superconductivity. Before his discovery, Onnes had spent most of hisscientific career studying extreme cold. The first step he took toward superconductivity wason July 10, 1908 when he liquified helium and cooled it to an astonishing 4 K, which isroughly the temperature of the background radiation in open space. Using this liquid helium,Onnes began experimenting with other materials and their properties when subjected tointense cold. In 1911, he began his research on the electrical properties of these samematerials. It was known to Onnes that as materials, particularly metals, cooled, they exhibitedless and less resistance. Bringing a mercury wire to as close to absolute zero as possible,Onnes observed that as the temperature dropped, so to did the resistance, until 4.2 K wasreached. There resistance vanished and current flowed through the wire unhindered. Below isan approximate graph displaying resistance as a function of temperature for the experimentOnnes conducted with mercury:Continuing with his experiments, Onnes discovered what he came to call "persistentcurrents," which were electrical currents that flowed continuously in a superconductorwithout a voltage to drive them. Additionally, the currents in superconductors flowed withoutdissipating energy, a fact that Onnes proved when he instigated a current in a conductor andfound that a year later the current was still flowing and had not degraded! In 1913, Onnes wasawarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery and the field of superconductors was officiallycreated.
How Superconductors Work 
The physics that govern the superconducting qualities themselves are very involved andcomplex, and are beyond the scope of this site, however, a basic explanation of their functionwill be given.A very interesting property of superconductors is their ability to "push" magnetic flux out of itself. This is done when eddy currents are induced in the superconductor that produce amaganetic field that is equal and opposite to the initial magnetic field.
 As shown in the above diagram, when a magnet comes close to a superconducting material,the magnetic flux is "pushed" out and the magnet hovers. This is an amazing phenomenacalled the Meissner Effect. The next question, is how a state of zero resistance is attained. Fortype I superconductors, this is best described by the BCS Theory.When eletrons flow through a material in the form of current, they bump into impurities inthe lattice of atoms. These collision cause vibration which in turn produces heat. It is theselattice vibrations which give a material its resistive properties. It would be logical to assumethat a better conductor would have fewer lattice vibrations and as it got colder it wouldbecome and even better conductor, however, this is not the case with superconductors. Thelattice vibrations themseleves are responsible for the free passage of current. As a good room-temperature conductor gets colder, its lattice begins to "freeze" and become very rigid, as apoor room-temperature conductor cools, its lattice also begins to "freeze," but at a slowerrate, which give the lattice some room for distortion. In 1957, three American physicists,John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and John Schrieffer used these facts to create what came to beknown as the BCS Theory. In it, they explained that at low temperatures, electrons teamed up

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