Outstanding in the cold

February 20, 2012 By Brian Murphy
Physicist John P. Davis stands in the site of what will be Canada's coldest laboratory.

Physicist John P. Davis is counting the days until he takes delivery of equipment that will give the University of Alberta the distinction of having the coldest laboratory in Canada.  

Davis’s U of A research focuses on low-temperature physics and the refrigeration unit he’s expecting in March can get just about as low as you can go on this planet: minus-273˚C.

“That kind of temperature gives us access to superconductivity research, which is the transmission of electric current with absolutely no resistance,” Davis says.

The fact that electrical flow is improved by lower temperatures has been known and studied since the early 1900s. Many Canadians have noticed that during deep cold snaps their indoor lights may suddenly shine more brightly. The reason, say, is that the chill dramatically reduces the electrical resistance in the power lines outside their homes.

Davis says superconductivity results in the complete elimination of resistance, which requires extremely low temperatures. “The dilution refrigerator on order from England is about 10 feet long and, towards the bottom, has a small compartment in which we’ll place new materials we want to test,” Davis says.

The equipment looks nothing like the refrigerator in your kitchen. It’s a three-metre long tube suspended by a hoist and hanging in a special compartment beneath the basement floor of the university’s Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science. “The compartment is completely separate from the building,” Davis says. “That eliminates the vibration and electrical or magnetic interference that affects the rest of CCIS.”

Davis says one goal of superconductivity experiments is to find materials that one day could be made to work with zero electrical resistance at more practical temperatures. 

“The holy grail of superconductivity is to find a material that eliminates at room temperature,” Davis says. “That’s when superconductivity could have applications for everyday life.”

Davis has been working closely with technicians at Oxford Instruments, a maker of high-tech tools and systems for research and industry, on the final design of the dilution refrigerator. If the work and projected delivery times stay on schedule, he expects that he and his students will be running low-temperature experiments by late this summer.

While some researchers are looking at futuristic applications such as magnetic levitation devices, Davis envisions something with a wider benefit. He says that superconductors on large-scale power grids could dramatically reduce world power consumption. “And that technology is within sight.” 

Explore further: New property in warm superconductors discovered

Related Stories

New property in warm superconductors discovered

November 17, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Led by Simon Fraser University physicist Jeff Sonier, scientists at TRIUMF have discovered something that they think may severely hinder the creation of room-temperature (37 degrees Celsius) superconductors.

Superconductivity's third side unmasked

June 17, 2011

The debate over the mechanism that causes superconductivity in a class of materials called the pnictides has been settled by a research team from Japan and China. Superconductivity was discovered in the pnictides only recently, ...

Recommended for you

Quantum dots used to convert infrared light to visible light

December 1, 2015

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers at MIT has succeeded in creating a double film coating that is able to convert infrared light at modest intensities into visible light. In their paper published in the journal Nature Photonics, ...

Test racetrack dipole magnet produces record 16 tesla field

November 30, 2015

A new world record has been broken by the CERN magnet group when their racetrack test magnet produced a 16.2 tesla (16.2T) peak field – nearly twice that produced by the current LHC dipoles and the highest ever for a dipole ...

Turbulence in bacterial cultures

November 30, 2015

Turbulent flows surround us, from complex cloud formations to rapidly flowing rivers. Populations of motile bacteria in liquid media can also exhibit patterns of collective motion that resemble turbulent flows, provided the ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Feb 20, 2012

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.