Etch-a-sketch with superconductors

August 22, 2011
In future, X-ray beams could be used to write superconducting circuits, such as those depicted in the image. Here, solid lines indicate electrical connections while semicircles denote superconducting junctions, whose states are indicated by red arrows. Credit: UCL Press Office

Reporting in Nature Materials this week, researchers from the London Centre for Nanotechnology and the Physics Department of Sapienza University of Rome have discovered a technique to 'draw' superconducting shapes using an X-ray beam. This ability to create and control tiny superconducting structures has implications for a completely new generation of electronic devices.

Superconductivity is a special state where a material conducts electricity with no resistance, meaning absolutely zero energy is wasted.

The research group has shown that they can manipulate regions of high temperature superconductivity, in a particular material which combines oxygen, copper and a heavier, 'rare earth' element called lanthanum. Illuminating with X-rays causes a small scale re-arrangement of the in the material, resulting in , of the type originally discovered for such materials 25 years ago by IBM scientists. The X-ray beam is then used like a pen to draw shapes in two dimensions.

A well as being able to write superconductors with dimensions much smaller than the width of a human hair, the group is able to erase those structures by applying heat treatments. They now have the tools to write and erase with high precision, using just a few simple steps and without the chemicals ordinarily used in . This ability to re-arrange the underlying structure of a material has wider applications to similar compounds containing and oxygen, ranging from fuel cells to catalysts.

Prof. Aeppli, Director of the London Centre for Nanotechnology and the UCL investigator on the project, said: "Our validation of a one-step, chemical-free technique to generate superconductors opens up exciting new possibilities for electronic devices, particularly in re-writing superconducting . Of profound importance is the key to solving the notorious 'travelling salesman problem', which underlies many of the world's great computational challenges. We want to create computers on demand to solve this problem, with applications from genetics to logistics. A discovery like this means a paradigm shift in computing technology is one step closer."

Prof Bianconi, the leader of the team from Sapienza, added: "It is amazing that in a few simple steps, we can now add superconducting 'intelligence' directly to a material consisting mainly of the common elements copper and oxygen."

Explore further: The Unusual Insulating Properties of a Superconductor

More information: The X-ray experiments were performed at the Elettra (Trieste) synchrotron radiation facility. The work is published in Nature Materials, 21 August 2011 (doi:1038/nmat3088) and follows on from previous discovery of fractal-like structures in superconductors (doi:10.1038/nature09260).

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not rated yet Aug 22, 2011
so they are etching the material with a light source...
sounds like standard printing to me.
not rated yet Aug 23, 2011
Making a faster computer won't allow solving an np-complete problem (like the traveling salesman problem) completely.

I have no heard of a quantum computer solution to this problem either so even quantum computers wouldn't solve this much faster (unless I simply haven't heard of this advance).

Current techniques for solving this problem usually get within 2 or 3% of the optimum answer in a reasonable time.

But even many orders of magnitude faster wouldn't make the size of the solvable problem much larger. The computational time grows exponentially with size.
not rated yet Aug 24, 2011
so they are etching the material with a light source...
sounds like standard printing to me.

They ar not etching anything, only converting from non-superconducting to superconducting. The term "etch-a-sketch" refers to a much simpler process, which also does not involve any actual etching of material.

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