Only a H2 in A Gilded Cage

“OK, Susan, you’ve led us through doing high-pressure experiments with the Diamond Anvil Cell and you’ve talked about superconductivity and supermagnetism. How do they play together?”

“It’s early days yet, Sy, but Dias and a couple of other research groups may have brought us a new kind of superconductivity.”

“Another? You talked like there’s only one.”

“It’s one of those ‘depends on how you look at it‘ things, Al. We’ve got ‘conventional‘ superconductors and then there are the others. The conventional ones — elements like mercury or lead, alloys like vanadium‑silicon — are the model we’ve had for a century. Their critical temperatures are generally below 30 kelvins, really cold. We have a 60‑year‑old Nobel‑winning theory called ‘BCS‘ that’s so good it essentially defines conventional superconductivity. BCS theory is based on quantum‑entangled valence electrons.”

“So I guess the unconventional ones aren’t like that, huh?”

“Actually, there seem to be several groups of unconventionals, none of which quite fit the BCS theory. Most of the groups have critical temperatures way above what BCS says should be the upper limit. There are iron‑based and heavy‑metals‑based groups that use non‑valence electrons. There are a couple of different carbon‑based preparations that are just mystical. There’s a crazy collection of copper oxide ceramics that can contain five or more elements. Researchers have come up with theories for each of them, but the theories aren’t predictive — they don’t give dependable optimization guidelines.”

“Then how do they know how to make one of these?”

“Old motto — ‘Intuition guided by experience.’ There are so many variables in these complex systems — add how much of each ingredient, cook for how long at what temperature and pressure, chill the mix quickly or anneal it slowly, bathe it in an electrical or magnetic field and if so, how strong and at what point in the process… Other chemists refer to the whole enterprise as witch’s‑brew chemistry. But the researchers do find the occasional acorn in the grass.”

“I guess the high‑pressure ploy is just another variable then?”

“It’s a little less random than that, Sy. If you make two samples of a conventional superconductor, using different isotopes of the same element, the sample with the lighter isotope has the higher critical temperature. That’s part of the evidence for BCS theory, which says that electrons get entangled when they interact with vibrations in a superconductor. At a given temperature light atoms vibrate at higher frequency than heavy ones so there’s more opportunity for entanglement to get started . That set some researchers thinking, ‘We’d get the highest‑frequency vibrations from the lightest atom, hydrogen. Let’s pack hydrogens to high density and see what happens.'”

“Sounds like a great idea, Susan.”

“Indeed, Al, but not an easy one to achieve. Solid metallic hydrogen should be the perfect case. Dias and his group reported on a sample of metallic hydrogen a couple of years ago but they couldn’t tell if it was solid or liquid. This was at 5 megabars pressure and their diamonds broke before they could finish working up the sample. Recent work has aimed at using other elements to produce a ‘hydrogen‑rich’ environment. When Dias tested H2S at 1.5 megabar pressure, they found superconductivity at 203 kelvins. Knocked everyone’s socks off.”

“Gold rush! Just squeeze and chill every hydrogen‑rich compound you can get hold of.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that, Sy. Extreme pressures can force weird chemistry. Dias reported that shining a green laser on a pressurized mix of hydrogen gas with powdered sulfur and carbon gave them a clear crystalline material whose critical temperature was 287 kelvins. Wow! A winner, for sure, but who knows what the stuff is? Another example — the H2S that Dias loaded into the DAC became H3S under pressure.”

“Wait, three hydrogens per sulfur? But the valency rules—”

“I know, Sy, the rules say two per sulfur. Under pressure, though, you get one unattached molecule of H2 crammed into the space inside a cage of H2S molecules. It’s called a clathrate or guest‑host structure. The final formula is H2(H2S)2 or H3S. Weird, huh? Really loads in the hydrogen, though.”

“Jupiter has a humungous magnetic field and deep‑down it’s got high‑density hydrogen, probably metallic. Hmmm….”

~~ Rich Olcott

Futile? Nope, Just Zero

“Megabar superconductivity.”

“Whoa, Susan. Too much information, too few words. Could you unpack that, please?”

“No problem, Sy. A bar is the barometric pressure (get it?) at sea level. A megabar is—”

“A million atmospheres, right?”

“Right, Al. So Ranga Dias and his crew were using their Diamond Anvil Cells to put their chemical samples under million-atmosphere pressures while they tested for superconductivity—”

“Like Superman uses?”

“Is he always like this, Sy?”

“Just when he gets excited, Susan. The guy loves Science, what can I say?”

“Sorry, Susan. So what makes conductivity into superconductivity?”

“Excellent question, Al. Answering it generated several Nobel Prizes and we still don’t have a complete explanation. I can tell you the what but I can’t give you a firm why. Mmm… what do you know about electrical resistance?”

“Just what we got in High School General Science. We built a circuit with a battery and a switch and an unknown resistor and a meter to measure the current. We figured the resistance from the voltage divided by the current. Or maybe the other way around.”

“You got it right the first try. The voltage drop across a resistor is the current times the resistance, V=IR so V/I=R. That’s for ordinary materials under ordinary conditions. But early last century researchers found that for many materials, if you get them cold enough the resistance is zero.”

“Zero? But … if you put any voltage across something like that it could swallow an infinite amount of current.”

“Whoa, Al, what’s my motto about infinities?”

“Oh yeah, Sy. ‘If your theory contains an infinity, you’ve left out physics that would stop that.’ So what’d stop an infinite current here?”

“The resistor wasn’t the only element in your experimental circuit. Internal resistance within the battery and meter would limit the current. Those 20th-century researchers had to use some clever techniques to measure what they had. Back to you, Susan.”

“Thanks, Sy. I’m going to remember that motto. Bottom line, Al, superconductors have zero resistance but only under the right conditions. You start with your test material, with a reasonable resistance at some reasonable temperature, and then keep measuring its resistance as you slowly chill it. If it’s willing to superconduct, at some critical temperature you see the resistance abruptly drop straight down to zero. The critical temperature varies with different materials. The weird thing is, once the materials are below their personal critical temperature all superconductors behave the same way. It’s seems to be all about the electrons and they don’t care what kind of atom they rode in on.”

“Wouldn’t copper superconduct better than iron?”

“Oddly enough, pure copper doesn’t superconduct at all. Iron and lead both superconduct and so do some weird copper-containing oxides. Oh, and superconductivity has another funny dependency — it’s blocked by strong magnetic fields, but on the other hand it blocks out weaker ones. Under normal conditions, a magnetic field can penetrate deep into most materials. However, a superconducting piece of material completely repels the field, forces the magnetic lines to go around it. That’s called the Meissner effect and it’s quantum and—”

“How’s it work?”

“Even though we’ve got a good theory for the materials with low critical temperature, the copper oxides and such are still a puzzle. Here’s a diagram I built for one of my classes…”

“The top half is the ordinary situation, like in a copper wire. Most of the current is carried by electrons near the surface, but there’s a lot of random motion there, electrons bouncing off of impurities and crystal defects and boundaries. That’s where ordinary conduction’s resistance comes from. Compare that with the diagram’s bottom half, a seriously simplified view of superconduction. Here the electrons act like soldiers on parade, all quantum‑entangled with each other and moving as one big unit.”

“The green spirals?”

“They represent an imposed magnetic field. See the red bits diving into the ordinary conductor? But the superconducting parade doesn’t make space for the circular motion that magnetism tries to impose. The force lines just bounce off. Fun fact — the supercurrent itself generates a huge magnetic field but only outside the superconductor.”

“How ’bout that? So how is megabar superconductivity different?”

~~ Rich Olcott