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20 November 2014

Path of least resistance: the quest for room-temperature superconductors

Michael Brooks’s Science Column. 

By Michael Brooks

We don’t talk enough about superconductors. These materials carry electricity without losing energy and could change the world – if only we could rediscover the kind of progress we used to make in this field.

We have known about superconductors since 1911, when the first one was discovered. In normal conductors – an aluminium wire at room temperature, for instance – electrons move through the material, jostled by all the other particles. Cool that aluminium down to -272° Celsius, though, and it becomes a superconductor. The electrons encounter no resistance, zipping along the wire as if they were the only particles in town.

That is significant: the copper cables used to transmit electricity from power stations to your home lose 10 per cent of energy through electrical resistance. If those cables were made of a superconductor, no energy would be lost. We would not need to generate so much power, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Even better would be the ability to store energy. Renewable sources such as wind, wave and solar power generate energy at times and rates beyond our control. That power could be stored indefinitely in superconducting circuits. Because these don’t dissipate any of the energy, a superconducting power store is a battery whose charge lasts as long as you need it to.

There are also transport applications. Superconductors repel magnets and engineers have exploited this by putting superconductors on trains and electromagnets on the track. The repulsion levitates the train above the track, hugely reducing friction and clearing the way for ultra-fast transport.

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So far, though, magnetic levitation trains have taken off in only a couple of places around the world. That is because superconductors are still not super enough. The main problem is that more energy is spent to cool materials until they become superconducting than is saved through reduced transmission loss, better energy storage capacity or greater transport efficiency.

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This is a tale of dashed hopes. From 1911 to the 1980s, superconductors were available at temperatures below -240° Celsius only. We thought we had beaten this barrier in 1986 when we discovered a copper compound that was superconducting at -183° Celsius. Suddenly, things were looking up: we could turn materials superconducting by cooling them with liquid nitrogen, a relatively cheap and easy means of refrigeration.

However, it still wasn’t cheap and easy enough to make superconducting technology mainstream. So we cooked up more of these “high-temperature superconductors”. By 1993, we had got to about -140° Celsius. Things were looking very good indeed. And then, almost nothing. We are still less than halfway to room-temperature superconductors.

That’s because, despite decades of research, we’re still trying to figure out how they work. Progress is painfully slow. In October, French and US researchers finally confirmed a prediction, made in 1964, about one microscopic characteristic of what is going on inside superconductors.

This latest breakthrough might lead to superconductors that can withstand higher magnetic fields and thus give hospitals better MRI scanners – but it won’t push that critical transition point up towards room temperature. We can only hope that will be achieved by the researchers investigating other features of superconduction. No one thinks such a breakthrough is imminent. In an age when we have come to understand some of the deepest secrets of the universe, the secrets of the superconductor are keeping our feet firmly on the ground.