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The Quantum Tunnel Vol. 01No. 04

The Quantum Tunnel Vol. 01No. 04

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Published by David Latchman
Room Temperature Superconductors
Room Temperature Superconductors

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Published by: David Latchman on May 10, 2011
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The Quantum Tunnel

Science and the World around Us Volume 1, Number 4, May, 8 2011

The Road to the Room Temperature Superconductor
This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Next Door Magazine David S. Latchman If you have ever had, or know someone who has, a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan or heard about experiments to accelerate sub-atomic particles to near light speeds and possibly create mini-black holes, you may have heard something about superconductors in the conversation. Superconductors are a type of material that has zero resistance at very cold temperatures and also exhibit several other properties. In the realm of science fiction, superconductors have been used to open up wormholes that allow people to travel almost instantaneously from one planet to the next and even other galaxies, as seen on the Star Gate movies and TV series. In Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” series, the City Builders’ energy collection devices were built using room-temperature superconductors. While these materials remain largely hidden from the general public, they do play an important role in our society, as we will soon learn, and though they don’t exhibit the properties of their science fiction counterparts, they are, none the less, some very exciting materials. There is one property of superconductors that is both easy and dazzling to demonstrate, making magnets float in midair. The demonstrator starts by showing us a black ceramic disc; something that looks quite ordinary. When a magnet is placed on top of this disc nothing happens but when the disc is cooled with liquid nitrogen, bringing it down to temperatures of -320.42°F (-195.79◦C), something magical occurs; the magnet floats and is suspended in midair. This feat of levitation is not a trick at all, it is firmly rooted in physics, and is known as the Meissner Effect. To explain this phenomenon we must delve into the realm of quantum mechanics. But these materials aren’t just the toys of idle scientists but scientific marvels that already have an impact on our lives and will continue to do so in the future.

A Theory of Conductivity
All matter is made of atoms, tiny indivisible particles made up of a central positively charged nucleus surrounded by negatively charged electrons. In metals, these atoms are arranged in a lattice where the outermost electrons have been separated from their parent atoms, creating a ’sea’ of electrons in which the positively charged atoms “float”. This allows the electrons to freely move about and what makes metals good conductors. When a voltage is applied across the ends of the metal, electrons drift from one end of the conductor to the other thereby creating an electrical current. Within the metal’s lattice, the atoms in the lattice vibrate with thermal energy. As a current flows through the conductor electrons collide with the metal’s atoms and lose energy in the form of heat, the prime cause for resistance in metals. As the temperature increases the atoms vibrate more produc-

Newsletter Contents:
The Road to the Room Temperature Superconductor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

The Quantum Tunnel Newsletter

Vol. 1, May, 8 2011

Figure 1: A magnet levitating above a superconductor that has been cooled with liquid nitrogen. ing more frequent collisions between atoms and electrons; resistivity increases with increasing temperature. initial failures, he eventually saw success with mercury and much to his surprise the resistance abruptly disappeared at -451.11°F (-268.95◦C). Onnes initially thought that something was wrong with his apparatus but after some methodical tests, he observed the effect was very real. Onnes had discovered something new – superconductivity – and in recognition of this discovery was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The History of Super-conductivity
The history of superconductivity is both a rich and fascinating one and one of which many books have been written. But there are some key events that have characterized the field’s history. Unlike many discoveries, superconductivity was discovered neither by chance nor accident and while it could not have been predicted, the idea that resistivity drops with temperature was postulated as far back as 1864. It was one of the driving reasons for developing the means to reach very low temperatures by liquefying gases. In 1908, Heike Onnes reached a major milestone by liquefying helium. In 1911, along with his doctoral student Jacob Clay, he continued the experiments started by other scientists to investigate the reduction of resistance at low temperatures by using his new liquid helium as a coolant. After some http://thequantumtunnel.wordpress.com/

Superconductors are not Perfect Conductors
Superconductivity describes the effect of a material’s resistance falling to zero when the temperature reaches or falls below a critical temperature. This is very different from what we expect to happen. As a material’s temperature drops we expect the atomic vibrations to slow down and eventually stop. Electrons can then flow without collision or resistance and become a perfect conductor, the point at which this happens is called absolute zero. Physicists define this temperature as zero Kelvin (0K) on the Kelvin 2

The Quantum Tunnel Newsletter

Vol. 1, May, 8 2011

scale or -459.67°F (-273.15◦C) but the laws of thermodynamics tell us that this temperature is impossible to attain; perfect conductors can not and should not exist. But there is another curious effect that is characteristic of superconductors, one we saw earlier, the Meissner effect. As a superconductor makes the transition to its superconducting state it also cancels any magnetic fields inside it, a phenomenon known as perfect diamagnetism. This property was first discovered in 1933 by Walther Meissner and Robert Ochsenfeld and indicated for the first time that superconductors weren’t perfect conductors at all. As diamagnetism is a quantum mechanical phenomenon, superconductors needed to be described quantum mechanically.

High-Temperature tors


“Every Theory of Superconductivity Can Be Disproved”
This tongue-in-cheek “theorem” was first said by Swiss physicist Fleix Bloch and highlighted the challenges that physicists of the early 1930’s faced. Every major physicists of the time had tried and failed to explain how certain metals lost all their electrical resistance when chilled to ultra-cold temperatures. At the time, physicists had neither the experience nor the evidence to fully understand the problem before them; they needed to develop a much deeper understanding of quantum mechanics and solid state physics to fully appreciate a solution. In 1933, John Bardeen became interested in the problem of superconductivity as a graduate student at Princeton University and while there is no indication that he tackled the problem during this period, it is quite possible that he though about it. It would take Bardeen several decades to fully realize a solution to the problem of superconductivity, a solution that would come while working with his graduate student Leon Cooper and post-doc J. Robert Schreiffer in 1957. All three men were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1972 for the BCS Theory of Superconductivity, named after the initials of all three gentlemen. Electrons are negatively charged and thus repel each other, a phenomena known as Coulomb repulsion. Bardeen, along with his colleagues, postulated that at some attraction also exists between electrons and at low temperatures and this attraction will overcome the Coulomb repulsion and allow electrons to bind and move together in pairs called Cooper pairs. These pairs of electrons combine in such a way that allow them to glide effortlessly through a metal’s lattice structure and lose no energy thus moving without resistance. http://thequantumtunnel.wordpress.com/

When Onnes first discovered superconductivity, he envisioned tremendous practical applications for the world at large, especially in the transmission of electrical power. It is not difficult to imagine why this would be so important. As electricity is distributed through the electrical grid, as much as 10% of this energy is lost before it finds its way to the consumer. Some engineering solutions exist which may reduce this to 7% but there are limits and as the world’s demand for electrical energy increases these resistive losses add up. Unfortunately for Onnes, his vision of a world where electricity could be transmitted over long distances without loss could not be realized. He would discover that superconductivity was very fragile animal that could be destroyed by sufficiently strong magnetic fields or electric currents. When no magnetic fields are present, superconductivity starts at a critical temperature but as the external magnetic field increases this critical temperature decreases. Eventually, strong enough magnetic fields, those above a critical field, will completely destroy a substance’s ability to super-conduct. Similarly, any currents above a critical current will also destroy any superconductivity. These low temperature superconductors (LTC), typically made of metals, would not see the applications Onnes had hoped for. The BCS theory predicted small critical temperatures for metals with the highest theoretical critical temperature being 30K or -405.67°F (−243.20◦C). It would take an expensive and massive refrigeration system to maintain these temperatures thus limiting any practical use of superconductivity. Scientists, by then, had long given up on any widespread use for superconductivity but the field would see several changes in the coming decades. In 1986 two IBM researchers, Karl Müller and Johannes Bednorz, discovered a material, lanthanum barium copper oxide (LaBaCuO), that super-conducted above the theoretical 30K limit. These cuprate superconductors generated a lot of excitement and re-energized the field amongst scientists and more high-temperature superconductors(HTC) would soon be discovered.

The Limitations of BCS Theory
As remarkable as the BCS theory was in explaining superconductivity in metals, it failed to explain the same phenomenon in these new materials. Cuprate or copper oxide superconductors (and other unconventional superconductors) differ in many important ways from conventional LTC superconductors, such 3

The Quantum Tunnel Newsletter

Vol. 1, May, 8 2011

as mercury, which are adequately explained by BCS theory; their structure is more complex than a metal’s simple lattice structure and does not allow for the formation of Cooper pairs. One of the more exciting discoveries came from University of Alabama researchers who discovered a material, Yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO), with a critical temperature of 93K or -292.27°F (-180.15◦C); exciting because it was the first superconducting material to achieve superconductivity above the boiling point of nitrogen. The discovery of YBCO allowed superconductivity to be put into practical use as the cost of liquid nitrogen is cheaper than milk or, depending on who you ask, beer. The discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in copper oxides also astonished scientists as copper oxides are generally bad conductors. This further lead scientists to believe that another mechanism was taking place. While research has indicated the materials and in what combinations may lead to high temperature superconductors (HTC), a theoretical understanding is a mystery and still some distance away.

The Applications of Superconductors
Superconductors are ideal for producing strong electromagnets and find their biggest application in medical imaging devices, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). Magnetic-levitation is another application where superconductors will see future use. Like the magician’s trick at the start of this article, engineers can use the Meissner effect to levitate trains thereby virtually eliminating friction between the train and its tracks to allow high-speed travel and transportation. But the most recent and interesting application for superconductors concerns Onnes’ original vision; electrical power transmission. As a significant portion of energy is wasted as electricity travels along copper wires, the idea of loss-less power transmission has its appeal but the high costs and impracticality of cooling miles of superconducting wire to cryogenic temperatures still limits this application to short distances. In 2001, three 400-foot HTC cables were installed in Albany, New York capable of delivering 100 million watts of power to consumers. This marked the first time commercial power has been delivered to US consumers via superconducting wires. Despite the challenges and costs of burying the HTC cables underground to keep them cool, as well as the cost and energy needed to maintain the liquid nitrogen cooling system, the cost in energy saved still outweigh the overall cost of the system. But energy savhttp://thequantumtunnel.wordpress.com/

ings isn’t the only reason superconductors are garnering interest from utility companies. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 affected many parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States as well as Ontario, Canada. At the time, it was only the second most widespread blackout in history, after the 1999 Southern Brazil blackout. The cause of both blackouts was due to overloaded power lines. As overloaded power-lines can result in a difficult and costly repair, they are automatically shut down when detected. Power is then redistributed to other areas to be compensated by other power lines which, in turn, must have the handling capacity to carry this excess load. If these power-lines also become overloaded, they too can trip and be shut down. This can result in the overload moving to other parts in the network and may result in a cascade failure of the entire system. Superconductors can alleviate this problem to a degree. As any currents above the critical current destroys superconductivity, the wires become normal conductors, damping and dissipating the extra energy as heat. As this is a built-in current limiting “feature” of superconductors it obviates the need for the bulky circuit breakers placed in a city’s power sub-stations. This redundancy can not only translate to a more robust system but also space savings for cities with limited real estate.

The Search for the Room Temperature Superconductor
The dream of practical applications for superconductors is an old one, as old as the dream for a roomtemperature superconductor. Such a material that can maintain its superconducting state well above 90°F (30◦C) would be a huge technological boon as there won’t be need for a cryogenic cooling system to maintain its superconducting state. This could allow longer runs of superconducting cables and more widespread distribution. Higher critical temperatures also mean higher critical fields and currents which will allow for smaller and more powerful electromagnets. This in turn could also revolutionize high-speed transportation. Since the discovery of high-temperature superconductors, there have been several scientists who have claimed to discover room-temperature superconducting materials but so far all independent investigation has proven these claims to be false. J. Prins, a physicist from the University of Pretoria, South Africa, claimed to have discovered a roomtemperature superconducting material in 2001, a claim that has remained unverified to this day. In 2010, D. Das Gupa, a physicist from the University of 4

The Quantum Tunnel Newsletter

Vol. 1, May, 8 2011

West Bengal, India, submitted a pre-print article with a room temperature superconductor claim. (Scientists submit pre-print articles to get comments from peers in the field and to determine if there are any merits to their findings before an article is formally submitted for publication and peer-review.) So while Das Gupta has made no formal claim, it is certainly an interesting one; it not only highlights the need for these materials but that research is actively taking place. Scientists are constantly improving their understanding of these materials and it is only a matter of

time before the secrets of room-temperature superconductivity are cracked. Room-temperature superconductivity isn’t going to solve all our problems but as the world’s energy demands continue to grow and the need for more efficient high-speed travel increases, the need to make better use of our resources becomes an important one. The technological solution that a room temperature superconductor may one day provide does not mitigate our personal responsibility to not waste energy but one fact remains, the energy wasted during normal power transmission is energy that the world can certainly use.

A This newsletter was created with the use of a L TEX style template by David S. Latchman. If you are in need AT X class or style files, a Beamer Presentation or any other L T X typsetting task A of your own specialized L E E performed I can be found on Elance. My Elance Page: http://www.elance.com/s/dlatchman/ My Home Page: http://thequantumtunnel.wordpress.com/



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