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Physicists one step closer to understanding how superconductors work

by CIFAR Dec 19 / 12

Scientists believe that one day it will be possible to have materials that conduct electricity at room temperature with no resistance or loss of energy – a feat that will transform our technologies and the way we use energy.

Scanning-tunneling spectroscopy image of Ca2–xNaxCuO2Cl2shows the merging of clusters (in green and yellow), the so-called pseudogap states
IMAGE: Yuhki Kohsaka, RIKEN Advanced Science Institute

To date, superconductivity has occurred at temperatures no warmer than about -140 °C. The mechanism underlying this high-temperature superconductivity still remains elusive, but physicists are getting closer to understanding how superconductors work.

Recently, CIFAR Advisor Hidenori Takagi (RIKEN) and his research team observed the transition of a weak conductor made of copper and oxygen into a high-temperature superconductor on a microscopic scale. Although researchers continuously experiment with this superconductor, this is the first time scientists have directly observed a phase transition taking place at the molecular level, giving them clues as to how these materials behave. The team’s findings were published in Nature Physics.

The team used a specialized microscope to look closely at a copper material as it transitioned from a poor conductor to a superconductor. To create the transition, the researchers added sodium little by little, which caused tiny clusters to start forming in the material. The moment the clusters connected, the material became a superconductor.

A better understanding of how superconductors behave raises the possibility that one day room-temperature superconductors will become a catalyst for a new technological revolution. If achieved, they will transform the way we generate and transport electricity. For example, solar or wind power could be used more efficiently by allowing electricity to be sent long distances without any loss. Superconductors would also transform health care technologies, public transit, and much more.