What Is a Superconductor?

A superconductor is an element or substance that conducts electrical current with no resistance and repels magnetic fields. A superconductor relies on many variables, such as temperature, to reach its superconductive state.


The first discovery of a superconductor was mercury in 1911 by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. He was working with liquid helium, but noticed that the low temperatures he was working with abruptly and drastically reduced the electrical resistance of a mercury filament. In 1933, German physicist Walther Meissner discovered a special property of superconductors that prevents magnetic fields from entering the interior, but mirror the magnetic field on the surface. This results in the ability of superconductors to levitate magnets.


While many properties of superconductors rely specifically on what the substance or element is, all superconductors have zero electrical resistance with low electric currents. This state of zero resistance is normally attained by lowering the temperature of the substance below a certain point known as the critical temperature. Most substances' critical temperatures are relatively close to absolute zero ('273.15 degrees Celsius), but a group of newer, higher-temperature superconductors have been discovered and are still undergoing research. All superconductors discovered to date are solids.

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The most common way to classify superconductors is by dividing them according to their physical properties into two classes: Type I and Type II. Type I superconductors are classified as metals or metalloids with critical temperatures very close to absolute zero. They are able to conduct electricity at room temperature and make a very rapid transition to the superconductive state and repel magnetic fields completely. There are 30 materials in the Type I category. Type II superconductors make a gradual shift into the superconducting state and often attain this property at much higher temperatures and magnetic fields than Type I. Type II superconductors are usually made of metal alloys or complex oxide ceramics. Because they can function at higher temperatures, Type II superconductors are more readily applied to technology than Type I.


Trains are being developed to utilize superconductors' magnetic levitating properties. This will provide trains with more environmentally friendly service and speeds of up to 400 km/h. Digital circuits, machinery, microwave filters and other computer components use superconductors to enhance their properties. They can be especially useful in communications technology in that certain superconductors can store and retrieve digital information, adjust frequency levels on antennas and enable or disable electronic equipment via a strong electromagnetic pulse.


The extremely low temperatures and conditions under which superconductivity currently must be achieved prevent it from being applied to widespread technology for such reasons as high refrigeration costs. However, new materials are being discovered every day that bring the use of superconductors at higher temperatures closer to reality. Upon these discoveries, carrying electricity over large distances without power loss will be achievable, and superconductors may find more practical use in medical equipment, geology, military technology and transportation.

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