Nav: Home

Breaking up is hard to do

August 21, 2019

Physicists used to think that superconductivity - electricity flowing without resistance or loss - was an all or nothing phenomenon. But new evidence suggests that, at least in copper oxide superconductors, it's not so clear cut.

Superconductors have amazing properties, and in principle could be used to build loss-free transmission lines and magnetic trains that levitate above superconducting tracks. But most superconductors only work at temperatures close to absolute zero. This temperature, called the critical temperature, is often only a few degrees Kelvin and requires liquid helium to stay that cold, making such superconductors too expensive for most commercial uses. A few superconductors, however, have a much warmer critical temperature, closer to the temperature of liquid nitrogen (77K), which is much more affordable.

Many of these higher-temperature superconductors are based on a two-dimensional form of copper oxide.

"If we understood why copper oxide is a superconductor at such high temperatures, we might be able to synthesize a better one" that works closer to room temperature (293K), says UConn physicist Ilya Sochnikov.

Sochnikov and his colleagues at Rice University, Brookhaven National Lab and Yale recently figured out part of that puzzle, and they report their results in the 21 August of Nature.

Their discovery was about how electrons behave in copper oxide superconductors. Electrons are the particles that carry electric charge through our everyday electronics. When a bunch of electrons flow in the same direction, we call that an electric current. In a normal electric circuit, say the wiring in your house, electrons bump and jostle each other and the surrounding atoms as they flow. That wastes some energy, which leaves the circuit as heat. Over long distances, that wasted energy can really add up: long-distance transmission lines in the U.S. lose on average 5% of their electricity before reaching a consumer, according to the Energy Information Administration.

But in a superconductor below its critical temperature, electrons behave totally differently. Instead of bumping and jostling, they pair up and move in sync with the other electrons in a kind of wave. If electrons in a normal current are a rushing, uncoordinated mob, electrons in a superconductor are like dancing couples, gliding across the floor like people in a ballroom. It's this friction-free dance - coherent motion - of paired electrons that makes a superconductor what it is.

The electrons are so happy in pairs in a superconductor that it takes a certain amount of energy to pull them apart. Physicists can measure this energy with an experiment that measures how big a voltage is needed to tear an electron away from its partner. They call it the 'gap energy'. The gap energy disappears when the temperature rises above the critical temperature and the superconductor changes into an ordinary material. Physicists assumed this is because the electron pairs have broken up. And in classic, low-temperature superconductors, it's pretty clear that that's what's happening.

But Sochnikov and his colleagues wanted to know whether this was really true for copper oxides. Copper oxides behave a little differently than classic superconductors. Even when the temperature rises well above the critical level, the energy gap persists for a while, diminishing gradually. It could be a clue as to what makes them different.

The researchers set up a version of the gap energy experiment to test this. They made a precise sandwich of two slices of copper oxide superconductor separated by a thin filling of electrical insulator. Each slice was just a few nanometers thick. The researchers then applied a voltage between them. Electrons began to tunnel from one slice of copper oxide to the other, creating a current.

By measuring the noise in that current, the researchers found that a significant number of the electrons seemed to be tunneling in pairs instead of singly, even above the critical temperature. Only about half the electrons tunneled in pairs, and this number dropped as the temperature rose, but it tapered off only gradually.

"Somehow they survive," Sochnikov says, "they don't break fully." He and his colleagues are still not sure whether the paired states are the origin of the high-temperature superconductivity, or whether it's a competing state that the superconductor has to win out over as the temperature falls. But either way, their discovery puts a constraint on how high temperature superconductors happen.

"Our results have profound implications for basic condensed matter physics theory," says co-author Ivan Bozovic, group leader of the Oxide Molecular Beam Epitaxy Group in the Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science Division at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and professor of applied physics at Yale University. Sochnikov agrees.

"There's a thousand theories about copper oxide superconductors. This work allows us to narrow it down to a much smaller pool. Essentially, our results say that any theory has to pass a qualifying exam of explaining the existence of the observed electron pairs," Sochnikov says. He and his collaborators at UConn, Rice University, and Brookhaven National Laboratory plan to tackle the remaining open questions by designing even more precise materials and experiments.
-end-
The research work at UConn was funded by the State of Connecticut through laboratory startup funds.

University of Connecticut

Related Science Articles:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.
Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.
Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.
World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.
PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.
More Science News and Science Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

In & Out Of Love
We think of love as a mysterious, unknowable force. Something that happens to us. But what if we could control it? This hour, TED speakers on whether we can decide to fall in — and out of — love. Guests include writer Mandy Len Catron, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, musician Dessa, One Love CEO Katie Hood, and psychologist Guy Winch.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#542 Climate Doomsday
Have you heard? Climate change. We did it. And it's bad. It's going to be worse. We are already suffering the effects of it in many ways. How should we TALK about the dangers we are facing, though? Should we get people good and scared? Or give them hope? Or both? Host Bethany Brookshire talks with David Wallace-Wells and Sheril Kirschenbaum to find out. This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News. Related links: Why Climate Disasters Might Not Boost Public Engagement on Climate Change on The New York Times by Andrew Revkin The other kind...
Now Playing: Radiolab

An Announcement from Radiolab