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