The Discovery of Superconductivity: Unlocking the Potential of Zero-Resistance Materials   

Superconductivity is one of the most transformational technology discoveries of the modern era. It involves certain materials that demonstrate the ability to conduct electricity without any resistance – known as ‘zero-resistance’ materials. Materials like these have the potential of completely revolutionizing the way that electrical circuits and components are designed, built, and used. Understanding the discovery and development of superconductivity is essential for unlocking the potential of these zero-resistance materials. This article explores the history, science and possible applications of superconductivity.

History   

The discovery of superconductivity first occurred in 1911, when Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes made a milestone observation while examining the electrical properties of mercury at extreme low temperatures. His experiments were conducted at the very cold temperatures that were obtainable in those years. He observed that when the temperature of the mercury was cooled down to the very low temperature of -268.8°C, the electrical resistance of that mercury dropped to nearly zero!

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes was the first scientist to receive the prestigious Nobel Prize for Physics in 1913 for his revolutionary discovery. This Nobel Prize marked the start of a new era in science and energy technology that would have far-reaching implications for the world.

Science  

The Laws of Superconductivity 

The science behind superconductivity is still not fully understood, however, the phenomenon is best described by the two most important equations of superconductivity – the London Equations. These equations explain how superconductivity occurs by describing the interaction between the electric field, the magnetic field and the weakly bound pairs of electrons known as Cooper pairs.

Cooper Pairs
Cooper pairs are a set of two electrons that interact in a way that allows them to move through a material without any resistance – they ‘superconduct!’ This is possible because Cooper pairs are formed of one electron with a positive charge, and one electron with a negative charge. The electrons of a Cooper pair have an opposite polarity, and this creates a cancelation effect which removes the resistance of the material to electric current.

Mechanism of Superconductivity 

The mechanism behind superconductivity is still not fully understood by contemporary science. However, one theory suggests that Cooper pairs ‘tunnel’ through a material without any resistance, due to a unique quantum effect. This tunneling effect allows electrons to pass through material without experiencing any resistance, and therefore, conduct electricity more efficiently than other materials at low temperatures.

Types of Superconductors   

There are two main types of superconductors: type I and type II.

Type I Superconductors 

Type I superconductors are materials which demonstrate zero-resistance at temperatures below what is known as the ‘critical temperature’. Below this temperature, the material becomes a superconductor, and all electrical resistance is lost, leading to zero resistance electrical currents and components.

Type II Superconductors 

Type II superconductors are materials that demonstrate zero resistance, but only at temperature significantly lower than type I superconductors. These materials create a varying magnetic field around them, which increases their resistance as the temperature increases.

The Meissner Effect 

The Meissner effect occurs when a type II superconductor is placed in a magnetic field, yet inhibits the field from entering the material. This is known as the effects of the exclusion of a magnetic field from the interior of a superconductor. This exclusion occurs because the Cooper pairs oppose the magnetic field from entering the material, and this creates the effect of a superconductor shielding itself when placed in a magnetic field.

Applications   

Since the discovery of superconductivity, a number of applications for the technology have been proposed and developed.

Medical 

One of the main applications of superconductors is in medical imaging. Superconducting magnets are used in medical imaging techniques, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). MRI is a safe, non-invasive procedure that uses a superconducting magnet to generate a detailed image of the human body.

High-Speed Computing 

Another major application of superconductors is in the area of high-speed computing. Superconductors are used to create high-powered, low-cost processors that are capable of operating at extremely fast speeds. For example, the world’s fastest computer – the IBM Roadrunner processor – is powered by a superconducting magnet.

Power Grid 

Superconductors are also essential for the development of the power grid, due to their ability to conduct high amounts of electricity without resistance. Superconductors have the potential to revolutionize the way that electricity is transported, distributed and stored on the grid, enabling more efficient and reliable electricity delivery.

Energy-Efficient Motors 

Superconductors can also be used to create more energy-efficient electrical motors. Superconducting motors are more efficient than conventional electric motors, as they have no electrical resistance and therefore can achieve higher torque and power output while consuming less electricity.

Quantum Computing 

One of the most exciting and potentially revolutionary applications of superconductors is in the area of quantum computing. Superconductors are essential for the development of quantum computers, which are computers that use subatomic particles as their processors. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the world’s computing capacity, as quantum computers are capable of performing calculations much faster than conventional computers.

The discovery of superconductivity was one of the most significant scientific achievements of the modern era. The resulting technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with electricity, by unlocking the potential of zero-resistance materials. While the science behind superconductivity is still not fully understood, the applications of this technology have already been realized in a number of fields, from medical imaging to quantum computing. The possibilities of this technology are truly fascinating and could lead to a variety of exciting future developments.