Superconductivity: Making it work in the real world

March 06, 2001

Scientists have confirmed it: a common compound has profound potential for future uses

Excitement has built as scientists raced to analyze the properties of a new high-temperature superconductor found in January by a Japanese team in a simple, commonly available compound.

Now, U.S. materials researchers have explored whether the compound, magnesium diboride or MgB2, will be useful for real-world applications such as electronics, communications and industrial tasks that would benefit from the passage of large amounts of current with no resistance. A team at a National Science Foundation (NSF) materials research center at the University of Wisconsin, in collaboration with an NSF-funded solid-state chemistry group at Princeton University, demonstrate in the March 8 issue of Nature that the answer is "yes."

"We've confirmed that this readily available compound has the special capabilities needed for the frictionless conduction of electricity, laying the groundwork for its potential use," said David Larbalestier of NSF's Materials Research Science and Engineering Center for Nanostructured Materials and Interfaces, located at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Superconductors are materials that lose all their resistance to electrical current flow below a certain critical temperature. The higher the critical temperature, the more useful the material for practical applications. Magnesium diboride's critical temperature at 39 Kelvin is lower than other candidate materials--generally copper oxides--but has other properties that this team says make it a "go."

In the copper oxide superconductors discovered so far, the interfaces between the crystals of the material--the so-called "grain boundaries"--interfere with the efficient flow of current, severely limiting their usefulness. Larbalestier's team showed that this is not the case in magnesium diboride. Instead, the current passes smoothly between the crystal grains.

The team tested the material in strong magnetic fields to determine that this beneficial quality pervades its entire structure.

"One of the unfulfilled promises of previously known copper-oxide superconductors is the commercial production of wires carrying large amounts of current for everyday applications," said Robert Cava of Princeton University. "The process of making a newly discovered superconductor into wires or other practical devices can take years. In this paper we report the first steps." Potential applications include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices, more efficient power transmission lines and a variety of electronic devices.

Cava said the scientists, some of whom have worked on the properties of high-temperature superconductors for well over a decade, are "very excited" that their students have had the opportunity to work on such an important discovery.
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The Wisconsin materials center is one of NSF's 29 multidisciplinary facilities working on different aspects of materials science. Education and research experiences for students are an important goal of the centers.

For more information on the materials research center, see http://mrsec.wisc.edu/

National Science Foundation

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