Using magnetism to understand superconductivity

Sep 04, 2012

Swiss research in atomic scale magnetism could play a role in the development of new materials that could permit lossless electricity transmission.

Might it one day be possible to transmit electricity from an offshore wind turbine to land-based users without any loss of current? Materials known as "high temperature" superconductors (even though they must be maintained at -140°C), which can conduct electricity without any losses, were supposed to make this dream a reality. But over the past twenty-five years, scientists have not been able to make any progress in this area. Research being done in EPFL's Laboratory for (LQM) could change that. Their study of magnetism at extremely small scales could give physicists a tool to use in their search for new .

There are some ceramics that are excellent insulators at room temperature but that become perfect conductors when submersed in . However, this phenomenon, known as "high temperature" superconductivity, is not at all well understood by physicists. They theorize that at these temperatures, the collective quantum of the atoms in the material might come into play. But studying the magnetic properties of these materials at this minuscule scale would require years of effort.

Mark Dean, John Hill and Ivan Bozovic from Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Thorsten Schmitt from Switzerland's Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI), and Bastien Dalla Piazza and Henrik Ronnow from EPFL have unveiled the phenomena at work at this atomic scale. Using a unique device, the Brookhaven team created a layer just a single atom thick. Then, despite the material's extreme thinness, the PSI scientists were able to use an ultrasensitive instrument to measure the magnetic dynamics of the atoms. And then EPFL provided the final piece of the puzzle, with mathematical models to analyze the measurements.

"We now have a kind of flashlight that will show us what direction we should take in our search," explains Ronnow. Without understanding how these superconducting properties occurred at these temperatures, researchers were probing in the dark, using trial and error, to explore promising new materials. By combining these results with other recent work done by LQM researcher Nikolai Tsyrulin, the EPFL team has provided a new method to help physicists in their search for new superconductors. It's a long-awaited step forward in the field; the Nobel Prize recognizing the discovery of was awarded more than 25 years ago.

Electrical resistance in traditional power lines leads to energy losses on the order of 3% in the electricity grid. At the scale of an entire country, this translates into several thousand gigawatts, which, in Switzerland's case, would be the equivalent of the electricity consumption of a city the size of Geneva. "The energy challenges we face are significant; being able to use superconductivity won't solve all of them, but it would nonetheless enable huge energy savings," Ronnow adds.

Explore further: Researchers make temporary, fundamental change to a material's properties

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Probing the secrets of unmagnetized magnets

Jun 29, 2012

EPFL physicists studying magnetic materials have discovered that they have some unexpected properties. Their research could lead to the development of even tinier magnets in the future.

Secrets behind high temperature superconductors revealed

Feb 22, 2009

( -- Scientists from Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) have found evidence that magnetism is involved in the mechanism behind high temperature superconductivity.

Pinning Down Superconductivity to a Single Layer

Oct 29, 2009

( -- Using precision techniques for making superconducting thin films layer-by-layer, physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory have identified a single layer ...

Superconductivity: The puzzle is taking shape

Sep 13, 2011

By destabilizing superconductivity with a strong magnetic field, the electrons of a "high temperature" superconductor align into linear filaments. This phenomenon has been demonstrated by a team of researchers ...

Recommended for you

How cloud chambers revealed subatomic particles

4 hours ago

Atoms are made of electrons, protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are in turn made up of quarks. These are just some of the elementary particles that make up the foundation of modern particle physics. ...

When a doughnut becomes an apple

5 hours ago

In experiments using the wonder material graphene, ETH researchers have been able to demonstrate a phenomenon predicted by a Russian physicist more than 50 years ago. They analyzed a layer structure that ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Sep 05, 2012
An applied magnetic-field can generate the charge-carriers which are responsible for superconduction. This happens when a magnetic field is applied perpendicular to a two-dimensional conductor. Localised states are generated which superconduct when they reach a critical density and exceeds this densisty. When this happens one measures a step in the Hall-voltage: i.e. the so-called quantum Hall effect. Integer steps are caused by type I SC and fractional steps by vortex formation owing to type II superconduction: No anyons involved: Anyons are hallucinations in Frank Wilczek's mind!