Some high-temperature superconductors might not be so odd after all

Finding hidden swirls of electric current shows that the material’s behavior matches standard theory

illustration of a superconductor

VORTEX FOUND  Newly observed swirls of electric current in a high-temperature superconductor (shown in an artist’s conception) may indicate that the unusual material fits within the standard theoretical picture.


A misfit gang of superconducting materials may be losing their outsider status.

Certain copper-based compounds superconduct, or transmit electricity without resistance, at unusually high temperatures. It was thought that the standard theory of superconductivity, known as Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory, couldn’t explain these oddballs. But new evidence suggests that the standard theory applies despite the materials’ quirks, researchers report in the Dec. 8 Physical Review Letters.

All known superconductors must be chilled to work. Most must be cooled to temperatures that hover above absolute zero (–273.15° Celsius). But some copper-based superconductors work at temperatures above the boiling point of liquid nitrogen (around –196° C). Finding a superconductor that functions at even higher temperatures — above room temperature — could provide massive energy savings and new technologies (SN: 12/26/15, p. 25). So scientists are intent upon understanding the physics behind known high-temperature superconductors.

When placed in a magnetic field, many superconductors display swirling vortices of electric current — a hallmark of the standard superconductivity theory. But for the copper-based superconductors, known as cuprates, scientists couldn’t find whirls that matched the theory’s predictions, suggesting that a different theory was needed to explain how the materials superconduct. “This was one of the remaining mysteries,” says physicist Christoph Renner of the University of Geneva. Now, Renner and colleagues have found vortices that agree with the theory in a high-temperature copper-based superconductor, studying a compound of yttrium, barium, copper and oxygen.

Vortices in superconductors can be probed with a scanning tunneling microscope. As the microscope tip moves over a vortex, the instrument records a change in the electrical current. Renner and colleagues realized that, in their copper compound, there were two contributions to the current that the probe was measuring, one from superconducting electrons and one from nonsuperconducting ones. The nonsuperconducting contribution was present across the entire surface of the material and masked the signature of the vortices.

Subtracting the nonsuperconducting portion revealed the vortices, which behaved in agreement with the standard superconductivity theory. “That, I think, is quite astonishing; it’s quite a feat,” says Mikael Fogelström of Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, who was not involved with the research.

The result lifts some of the fog surrounding cuprates, which have so far resisted theoretical explanation. But plenty of questions still surround the materials, Fogelström says. “It leaves many things still open, but it sort of gives a new picture.”

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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