Thursday, August 26, 2010


By reader request, I will explain superconductors.  But I have to be cautious about it.  I may understand the basics, but I don't have the deeper understanding of a professional.  I recommend the recent explanation on Uncertain Principles, which is written by a professional, though he doesn't specialize in superconductors.

A superconductor is a material with two characteristic properties: zero resistance and the Meissner Effect.

Zero resistance means that it conducts electricity perfectly.  When electricity flows through a superconductor, no energy is lost to heat.  This is obviously has many practical uses.  If we could just replace all of our transmission lines with superconductors, for instance, we could save so much electricity.

What's more, we can create persistent currents in a superconductor.  These are currents that just keep on going and going in a loop for an indefinite amount of time.  No energy is lost to heat, so the current never stops.  One of the practical applications of this are strong magnets.  A loop of current creates a magnetic field, and no material can maintain a current as efficiently as superconductors.  MRI machines, for instance, use superconducting magnets.

The Meissner Effect is a little trickier to describe.

If you've ever played with a bar magnet, you know that it attracts certain kinds of metals, even if those metals are not themselves magnets.  Materials that attract magnets are called paramagnetic.  They attract magnets because when they are in the presence of a magnet, they spontaneously form their own magnetic field in the same direction.  So when you put a magnet and a metal together, they behave like two magnets attracting each other.

However, many materials are not paramagnetic, but diamagnetic.  When they're in the presence of a magnet, they spontaneously form their own magnetic field in the opposite direction.  This causes them to be repelled by magnets.  Diamagnetism is usually very weak, so it's hard to see just by fooling around with refrigerator magnets.

The Meissner Effect means that a superconductor is a perfect diamagnet.  When a superconductor is in the presence of a magnet, it spontaneously forms a magnetic field in the opposite direction, just enough to cancel the magnetic field.  So when you put a superconductor near a magnet, the magnetic fields just go around the superconductor, never penetrating through.  This also means that superconductors repel magnets, strongly enough to create magnetic levitation.

The lines represent the magnetic field, which is going around the superconducting sphere. (Image courtesy of Geek3)

This is the classic superconductor demonstration of magnetic levitation.  (Image courtesy of David Monniaux)

As we now understand it, the reason for superconductivity has to do with fermions and bosons.  Fermions are particles that cannot occupy the same state.  For example, when you have a lot of electrons in a single atom, each electron must occupy a successively higher energy state, from the core electrons to the outer electrons.  Bosons, on the other hand, are allowed to crowd a single state.  If electrons were bosons, then they would all collapse to the smallest orbital around an atom.

The reason for fermions and bosons is complicated enough to devote a whole blog post complete with pictures.  Let's just say that single electrons are fermions, but paired electrons are bosons.  This is what happens in a superconductor.  The electrons pair up, and behave like bosons.

Pairing up electrons requires that there be some attractive force between the electrons.  This is hard to imagine, because electrons have like charges, and normally repel each other.  But remember that we don't just have negatively charged electrons, but positively charged atomic nuclei.  If we have an electron, it pulls nearby atomic nuclei towards it, creating an excess positive charge.  This positive charge weakly attracts a second electron.  The weak attractive force between electrons allows them to pair up.

This is known as BCS theory (named for the physicists who proposed it, Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer).  It allows for superconductivity up to about 30 K above absolute zero (that's about -240 Celsius, or -400 Fahrenheit).  Above this temperature, the positively charged nuclei fluctuate too much from thermal energy for the mechanism to work properly.

The thing is, since 1986, we have observed superconductors at much higher temperatures!  The highest temperature superconductors work up to about 125 K* (-150 Celsius or -240 Fahrenheit), which is still really cold, but too hot for physicists.  It's a holy grail for physicists to figure out the correct explanation for high-temperature superconductors.  It's a guaranteed Nobel Prize.  With a good explanation, we may be able to create superconducting materials at even higher temperatures, perhaps even at room temperature.  Once we get room temperature superconductors, we will finally be able to create those perfect transmission lines that we were dreaming of, among other things.  Until then, all our superconductors have to be refrigerated by something like liquid nitrogen.  Unfortunately, this makes many possible applications of superconductors impractical.

*You might see claims of superconductivity at higher temperatures, but these aren't generally accepted.

One of the interesting things about these high temperature superconductors is that the Meissner Effect does not strictly hold.  Superconductors are divided into two types: Type-I and Type-II.  Above a certain magnetic field, Type-I superconductors stop behaving like superconductors.  This is because the Meissner Effect requires a certain amount of energy.  The stronger the magnetic field, the more energy it requires.  If the magnetic field is too strong, then it takes too much energy for the material to remain a superconductor.  Instead, it just becomes a regular material with electrical resistance.

But all high-temperature superconductors are Type-II.  Type-II superconductors remain superconductors even in stronger magnetic fields.  Once the magnetic field is strong enough, it starts to penetrate the superconductor in thin tubes.

Magnetic field penetrates Type-II superconductors in thin tubes.  (Image courtesy of Hyperphysics)

What's going on here is that the material is now a mix of superconducting and non-superconducting material.  The bulk of the material is superconducting, but the thin tubes are non-superconducting.  That's why the magnetic field can penetrate through the tubes, but not through the rest of the material.

The difference between a Type-I and Type-II superconductor is that a Type-I superconductor doesn't like having lots of boundaries between superconducting and non-superconducting material.  Having lots of little non-superconducting tubes wouldn't make sense in a Type-I superconductor because the boundaries would just require too much energy.  On the other hand, in a Type-II superconductor, boundaries don't require extra energy.

As far as practical applications go, Type-II superconductors are probably more useful, since they allow for the strong magnetic fields needed for MRIs, maglev trains, and any large currents.

And right about now, we're at the limit of what can be explained to a popular audience, also incidentally about the limit of my knowledge.  But if you have any questions, feel free to ask.


DeralterChemiker said...

You are doing well in explaining superconductivity to me so far. Can you explain the role of phonons and spin-density waves? Can those little tubes that you talk about in type II superconductors be located physically within the crystal lattices of YBCO or LaFeAs(O,F)?

miller said...

In BCS theory, an electron attracts ions towards it. But the ions are not just flying all over the place, they're confined to certain points in a lattice. Instead, they just deviate slightly from the lattice. This slight deviation is what allows the electrons to attract each other.

There is some energy associated with this deviation from the lattice. And since this is the quantum world, the energy comes in discrete chunks. We call these chunks phonons. So BCS theory is a theory of phonons, though I did not describe it that way.

If you have heard about spin density waves in the context of superconductors, it's probably an alternative mechanism proposed to explain superconductors. That's just a guess on my part.

According to Hyperphysics, a typical size of these little tubes (called vortices) is 300 nm wide. That means that it's much wider than the distance between two atoms.

However, I wouldn't be surprised if there were some preferred directions for the vortices depending on the orientation of the crystal lattice.

Hi said...

thank you sir,
can you please explain ,upto what extent type 2 superconductor stop magnetic fields
i mean, does is depend on thickness of super conductor

miller said...

For a Type-II superconductor, there are three states: the pure superconducting state, the vortex state, and the normal state. In the pure superconducting state, no magnetic field penetrates the superconductor. In the vortex state, the magnetic field penetrates in thin tubes, as shown in the picture in the post. In the normal state, it's just an ordinary material.

The material transitions between these three states depending on the temperature and external magnetic field. If the external magnetic field is strong enough, it enters the vortex state; if even stronger, it enters the normal state. The required magnetic field depends on the material, but Type-II superconductors can generally handle a lot more than Type-I superconductors.

Hi said...

Thank you very much, for your quick reply sir.
can you please tell me which is the cheapest type-2 superconductor and also its cost,
what will be the temperature at which it completely blocks magnetic field
and how to attain that temperature in an engineering college lab.
thank you.

miller said...

That information is better found in the literature, or from sellers.

Hi said...

sir, i am a small and poor guy either to read huge literature or to buy from sellers.
i found you to know more about my intrests.
this is the only way to contact you,
can you please answer these questions
how to get hydrogen sprectrum on a paper (name the apparatus required)
how to calculate ionization energy of hydrogen atoms in discharge tube.(name the apparatus required)
thank you sir,

miller said...

I am not the correct person to ask.