Superconducting – What’s it all about
Written by: Donald M Ginsberg
Superconductivity was discovered in 1911 by the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes; he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1913 for his low-temperature research. Kamerlingh Onnes found that the electrical resistivity of a mercury wire disappears suddenly when it is cooled below a temperature of about 4 K (−269 °C); absolute zero is 0 K, the temperature at which all matter loses its disorder. He soon discovered that a superconducting material can be returned to the normal (i.e., nonsuperconducting) state either by passing a sufficiently large current through it or by applying a sufficiently strong magnetic field to it.
For many years it was believed that, except for the fact that they had no electrical resistance (i.e., that they had infinite electrical conductivity), superconductors had the same properties as normal materials. This belief was shattered in 1933 by the discovery that a superconductor is highly diamagnetic; that is, it is strongly repelled by and tends to expel a magnetic field. This phenomenon, which is very strong in superconductors, is called the Meissner effect for one of the two men who discovered it. Its discovery made it possible to formulate, in 1934, a theory of the electromagnetic properties of superconductors that predicted the existence of an electromagnetic penetration depth, which was first confirmed experimentally in 1939. In 1950 it was clearly shown for the first time that a theory of superconductivity must take into account the fact that free electrons in a crystal are influenced by the vibrations of atoms that define the crystal structure, called the lattice vibrations. In 1953, in an analysis of the thermal conductivity of superconductors, it was recognized that the distribution of energies of the free electrons in a superconductor is not uniform but has a separation called the energy gap.
The theories referred to thus far served to show some of the interrelationships between observed phenomena but did not explain them as consequences of the fundamental laws of physics. For almost 50 years after Kamerlingh Onnes’s discovery, theorists were unable to develop a fundamental theory of superconductivity. Finally, in 1957 such a theory was presented by the physicists John Bardeen, Leon N. Cooper, and John Robert Schrieffer of the United States; it won for them the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1972. It is now called the BCS theory in their honour, and most later theoretical work is based on it. The BCS theory also provided a foundation for an earlier model that had been introduced by the Russian physicists Lev Davidovich Landau and Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg (1950). This model has been useful in understanding electromagnetic properties, including the fact that any internal magnetic flux in superconductors exists only in discrete amounts (instead of in a continuous spectrum of values), an effect called the quantization of magnetic flux. This flux quantization, which had been predicted from quantum mechanical principles, was first observed experimentally in 1961.
In 1962 the British physicist Brian D. Josephson predicted that two superconducting objects placed in electric contact would display certain remarkable electromagnetic properties. These properties have since been observed in a wide variety of experiments, demonstrating quantum mechanical effects on a macroscopic scale.
The theory of superconductivity has been tested in a wide range of experiments, involving, for example, ultrasonic absorption studies, nuclear-spin phenomena, low-frequency infrared absorption, and electron-tunneling experiments. The results of these measurements have brought understanding to many of the detailed properties of various superconductors.
Superconductivity is a startling departure from the properties of normal (i.e., nonsuperconducting) conductors of electricity. In materials that are electric conductors, some of the electrons are not bound to individual atoms but are free to move through the material; their motion constitutes an electric current. In normal conductors these so-called conduction electrons are scattered by impurities, dislocations, grain boundaries, and lattice vibrations (phonons). In a superconductor, however, there is an ordering among the conduction electrons that prevents this scattering. Consequently, electric current can flow with no resistance at all. The ordering of the electrons, called Cooper pairing, involves the momenta of the electrons rather than their positions. The energy per electron that is associated with this ordering is extremely small, typically about one thousandth of the amount by which the energy per electron changes when a chemical reaction takes place. One reason that superconductivity remained unexplained for so long is the smallness of the energy changes that accompany the transition between normal and superconducting states. In fact, many incorrect theories of superconductivity were advanced before the BCS theory was proposed.
Hundreds of materials are known to become superconducting at low temperatures. Twenty-seven of the chemical elements, all of them metals, are superconductors in their usual crystallographic forms at low temperatures and low (atmospheric) pressure. Among these are commonly known metals such as aluminum, tin, lead, and mercury and less common ones such as rhenium, lanthanum, and protactinium. In addition, 11 chemical elements that are metals, semimetals, or semiconductors are superconductors at low temperatures and high pressures. Among these are uranium, cerium, silicon, and selenium. Bismuth and five other elements, though not superconducting in their usual crystallographic form, can be made superconducting by preparing them in a highly disordered form, which is stable at extremely low temperatures. Superconductivity is not exhibited by any of the magnetic elements chromium, manganese, iron, cobalt, or nickel.
Most of the known superconductors are alloys or compounds. It is possible for a compound to be superconducting even if the chemical elements constituting it are not; examples are disilver fluoride (Ag2F) and a compound of carbon and potassium (C8K). Some semiconducting compounds, such as tin telluride (SnTe), become superconducting if they are properly doped with impurities.
Since 1986 some compounds containing copper and oxygen (called cuprates) have been found to have extraordinarily high transition temperatures, denoted Tc. This is the temperature below which a substance is superconducting. The properties of these high-Tc compounds are different in some respects from those of the types of superconductors known prior to 1986, which will be referred to as classic superconductors in this discussion. For the most part, the high-Tc superconductors are treated explicitly toward the end of this section. In the discussion that immediately follows, the properties possessed by both kinds of superconductors will be described, with attention paid to specific differences for the high-Tc materials. A further classification problem is presented by the superconducting compounds of carbon (sometimes doped with other atoms) in which the carbon atoms are on the surface of a cluster with a spherical or spheroidal crystallographic structure. These compounds, discovered in the 1980s, are called fullerenes (if only carbon is present) or fullerides (if doped). They have superconducting transition temperatures higher than those of the classic superconductors. It is not yet known whether these compounds are fundamentally similar to the cuprate high-temperature superconductors.
Written by: Donald M Ginsberg