Iron-based Materials May Unlock Superconductivity's Secrets

Nov 13, 2008
NIST researchers have found that new iron-based high-temperature superconductors subtly change their molecular shape as temperatures decrease. This graphic shows a superconductor transitioning from tetragonal (at top) to orthorhombic at about 220 Kelvin (-53 Celsius). Such physical changes appear to be a precursor to superconductivity, in which electric current can flow without resistance. Credit: NIST

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are decoding the mysterious mechanisms behind the high-temperature superconductors that industry hopes will find wide use in next-generation systems for storing, distributing and using electricity. In two new papers on a recently discovered class of high-temperature superconductors, they report that the already complicated relationship between magnetism and superconductivity may be more involved than previously thought, or that a whole new mechanism may drive some types of superconductors.

At temperatures approaching absolute zero, many materials become superconductors, capable of carrying vast amounts of electrical current with no resistance. In such low-temperature superconductors, magnetism is a villain whose appearance shatters the fragile superconductive state. But in 1986, scientists discovered "high temperature" (HTc) superconductors capable of operating much warmer than the previous limit of 30 degrees above absolute zero.

In fact, today's copper-oxide materials are superconductive in liquid nitrogen, a bargain-priced coolant that goes up to a balmy 77 degrees above absolute zero. Such materials have enabled applications as diverse as high-speed maglev trains, magnetic-resonance imagers and highly sensitive astronomical detectors. Still, no one really understands how HTc superconductivity works, although scientists have long suspected that in this case, magnetism boosts rather than suppresses the effect.

The beginnings of what could be a breakthrough came in early 2008 when Japanese researchers announced discovery of a new class of iron-based HTc superconductors. In addition to being easier to shape into wires and otherwise commercialize than today's copper-oxides, such materials provide scientists fresh new subjects with which to develop and test theories about HTc superconductivity's origins.

Scientists at NIST's Center for Neutron Research and a team including researchers from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Maryland, Ames Laboratory and Iowa State University used beams of neutrons to peek into a superconductor's atomic structure. They first found iron-based superconductors to be similar to copper-oxide materials in how "doping" (adding specific elements to insulators in or around a HTc superconductor) influences their magnetic properties and superconductivity.

Then the team tested the iron-based material (CaFe2As2) without doping it. Under moderate pressure, the volume of the material's crystal structure compressed an unusually high 5 percent. Intriguingly, it also became superconductive without a hint of magnetism.

The iron-based material's behavior under pressure may suggest the remarkable possibility of an entirely different mechanism behind superconductivity than with copper oxide materials, NIST Fellow Jeffrey Lynn said. Or it could be that magnetism is simply an ancillary part of HTc superconductivity in general, he said—and that a similar, deeper mechanism underlies the superconductivity in both. Understanding the origin of the superconductivity will help engineers tailor materials to specific applications, guide materials scientists in the search for new materials with improved properties and, scientists hope, usher in higher-temperature superconductors.

Publications:

J. Zhao, Q. Huang, C. de al Cruz, S. Li, J. W. Lynn, Y. Chen, M. A. Green, G. F. Chen, G. Li, Z. C. Li, J. L. Luo, N. L. Wang and P. Dai. Structural and magnetic phase diagram of CeFeAsO1-xFx and its relationship to high-temperature superconductivity. Nature Materials (DOI 10.1038/nmat2315).

A. Kreyssig, M. A. Green, Y. B. Lee, G. D. Samolyuk, P. Zajdel, J. W. Lynn, S. L. Bud’ko, M. S. Torikachvili, N. Ni, S. Nandi, J. Leão, S. J. Poulton, D. N. Argyriou, B. N. Harmon, P. C. Canfield, R. J. McQueeney and A. I. Goldman. Pressure-induced volume-collapsed tetragonal phase of CaFe2As2 as seen via neutron scattering. Phys. Rev. B 78 (in press).

Provided by National Institute of Standards and Technology

Explore further: New insights found in black hole collisions

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Electrons in slow motion

Mar 09, 2015

A process that is too fast to be measured and analyzed. Yet a group of international scientists did not lose heart and conceived a sort of highly sophisticated moviola film-editing system, which allowed them to observe - ...

Explainer: What is a superconductor?

Mar 05, 2015

Materials can be divided into two categories based on their ability to conduct electricity. Metals, such as copper and silver, allow electrons to move freely and carry with them electrical charge. Insulators, ...

Recommended for you

New insights found in black hole collisions

Mar 27, 2015

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

Mar 27, 2015

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

Mar 27, 2015

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 ...

Fluctuation X-ray scattering

Mar 26, 2015

In biology, materials science and the energy sciences, structural information provides important insights into the understanding of matter. The link between a structure and its properties can suggest new ...

Hydrodynamics approaches to granular matter

Mar 26, 2015

Sand, rocks, grains, salt or sugar are what physicists call granular media. A better understanding of granular media is important - particularly when mixed with water and air, as it forms the foundations of houses and off-shore ...

User comments : 0

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.