Study shows high-energy magnetic interactions alone don't cause high-temperature superconductivity

Apr 16, 2014 by Mike Ross
From left: Researchers Giacomo Ghiringhelli, Chunjing Jia, Krzysztof Wohlfeld, Thomas Devereaux and Brian Moritz discuss the results of Jia's simulation. Credit: Fabricio Sousa/SLAC

( —A new theory and computer simulation by SLAC and Stanford researchers show that high-energy magnetic interactions are not the sole factor in making copper oxide materials perfect electrical conductors – superconductors – at relatively high temperatures.

This conclusion eliminates what many researchers had considered a primary pathway for finding new high-temperature superconductors. As a result, the mechanism for creating high-temperature superconductors remains as elusive as when the tantalizing phenomenon was discovered nearly 30 years ago, although the new result does narrow the search area.

"We'd all love to know how to make a room-temperature superconductor, which would save the world enormous amounts of energy," said Thomas Devereaux, leader of the research team and director of the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES), which is jointly run with SLAC. "But to do that we must understand what's happening inside the materials when they become superconducting. This result tells us that simply relating the high energy of magnetic interactions found in copper oxides with is not the whole story."

The new theory and simulation were developed by Stanford graduate student Chunjing Jia and published recently in Nature Communications. Her calculations predict the atom-scale electronic and magnetic behavior of one of the most promising classes of , copper oxides, as electrons are added or subtracted by a process called doping.

Jia ran the simulation on thousands of supercomputer processors at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC). When she compared simulated changes in magnetic interactions over a wide range of doping conditions with the well-known rise and fall of superconductivity in copper oxides, they did not match.

"There was no correlation," Jia said. "If high-energy magnetic interactions were important in enabling in this material, we would have seen a rise and fall that matched its superconductivity."

Understanding High-Temperature Superconductors

Since the late 1950s, scientists have known how low-temperature superconductivity develops in certain metals and simple alloys within a few degrees of absolute zero: Electrons pair up and effortlessly ride waves of atomic vibrations that hold the pairs together like a virtual glue. According to that theory, the energy scale of the glue sets the maximum temperature at which the material is superconducting. Above that transition temperature, the glue fails as thermal vibrations increase; the electron pairs split up and superconductivity disappears.

In 1986, complex copper oxide materials were found to be superconducting at much higher – although still quite cold – temperatures. The discovery was so unexpected it caused a worldwide scientific sensation. Researchers speculated that superconductivity at room temperature might be possible if the mechanism that caused the new phenomenon could be found and optimized.

Until now, the most likely glue for holding electron pairs together at the higher superconducting temperatures seemed to be strong magnetic excitations created by interactions between electron spins. However, this study shows that those excitations are, at most, a minor factor.

Determining the precise details of the myriad interactions between the electrons in the complex copper oxide materials is exceedingly difficult. Fortunately, Jia's simulation also confirmed that a recently improved X-ray technique can help.

RIXS to the Rescue

The technique is called resonant inelastic X-ray scattering (RIXS). It involves illuminating a sample with X-rays that have just enough energy to excite some electrons deep inside the target atoms to jump up into a specific higher orbit. When the electrons relax back down into their previous positions, a tiny fraction of them emit X-rays that carry valuable atom-scale information about the material's electronic and magnetic configuration. When it was first demonstrated in the mid-1970s, however, the RIXS signal was too faint and blurry to be useful.

"You'd hit a material with 10 quadrillion X-ray photons and would be happy to get a few thousand in the detector," said Giacomo Ghiringhelli, associate professor of physics at the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy. "It was very difficult to do significant research with so few photons."

That changed dramatically seven years ago when Ghiringhelli, Lucio Braicovich and other colleagues made a fundamental change to the RIXS technique that boosted its output by 100 to 1,000 times.

"Giacomo's and Lucio's innovation surprised everyone in the field," said Devereaux, who now collaborates with them. "RIXS suddenly became a big thing in X-ray spectroscopy."

As a result, new RIXS beamlines are being built at other X-ray light sources around the world. The Department of Energy recently approved a new RIXS experimental station for SLAC's Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), setting the stage for even more precise experiments at future high-repetition-rate X-ray free-electron lasers.

Moreover, Jia's simulation provided independent confirmation that RIXS is actually seeing the .

"The fundamental insights we're gaining with RIXS and our theoretical simulations will ultimately help us learn how to design, from the atom up, new materials having specific and useful electronic and magnetic behaviors," Devereaux said. "Finding the conditions that enable high-temperature superconductivity is still at the top of our list."

Explore further: Scientists gain new insight into mysterious electronic phenomenon

More information: "Persistent spin excitations in doped antiferromagnets revealed by resonant inelastic light scattering." C. J. Jia et al, Nature Communications 5, 28 February 2014, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4314

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Superconductivity's third side unmasked

Jun 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 ...

Recommended for you

New insights found in black hole collisions

10 hours ago

New research provides revelations about the most energetic event in the universe—the merging of two spinning, orbiting black holes into a much larger black hole.

X-rays probe LHC for cause of short circuit

10 hours ago

The LHC has now transitioned from powering tests to the machine checkout phase. This phase involves the full-scale tests of all systems in preparation for beam. Early last Saturday morning, during the ramp-down, ...

Swimming algae offer insights into living fluid dynamics

14 hours ago

None of us would be alive if sperm cells didn't know how to swim, or if the cilia in our lungs couldn't prevent fluid buildup. But we know very little about the dynamics of so-called "living fluids," those ...

First glimpse inside a macroscopic quantum state

18 hours ago

In a recent study published in Physical Review Letters, the research group led by ICREA Prof at ICFO Morgan Mitchell has detected, for the first time, entanglement among individual photon pairs in a beam ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 17, 2014
This is pathetic!

Supercomputer programs are being run, while the mechanism for all super-conduction in both low temperature metals, ceramics and highly doped semiconductors, only requires a simple quadratic equation, which any grade 8 pupil can solve. How many billions of dollars are still going to be wasted since scientists in this field want to believe in pair-formation. And want to believe that the BCS theory models "conventional superconductors".

There are no "conventional" and "non-conventional" superconductors since the mechanism is the same in all materials. Brian Pippard has done physics a great disfavour to claim that there are "conventional" superconductors. He should rather have listened to Bernd Matthias who repeatedly told him that a model that cannot predict (like the BCS model) is useless physics!
Apr 17, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Apr 17, 2014

Zephyr!!! I do not throw the child out with the bath water since there is no child in the bath. The concept of Cooper pairs is based on Voodoo, just like all "particle" physics based on Feynman diagrams.

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.