July 05, 2011
Superconductivity is one of the most remarkable effects in physics. Every electrical conductor has a resistivity, but some materials lose their resistivity completely if they are cooled to below a characteristic temperature; the current then flows without any loss whatsoever. When the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered this effect in 1911 in mercury, he initially believed that his measuring instruments were faulty, before he became aware of the significance of his monumental discovery.
“Normal” conductors such as mercury or lead must be cooled down to temperatures near absolute zero at minus 273.16 degrees Celsius in order to become superconducting. It was therefore a sensation when, in 1986, Johannes Georg Bednorz and Karl Alexander Müller presented a ceramic material that already became superconducting at minus 248 degrees Celsius. Since then, these cold conductors have been a burning issue with both scientists working in basic research and users. The ultrafast switch, which has now been developed by the research group working with Andrea Cavalleri, head of the Max Planck Research Group for Structural Dynamics at the University of Hamburg, is a further astonishing discovery in this field.
The high-temperature superconductor used by the Hamburg scientists has been known for a long time. It is a crystal based on lanthanum cuprate (La2CuO4) to which a specific quantity of strontium has been added (La1,84Sr0,16CuO4). Its transition temperature is minus 233 degrees Celsius. Although it is not yet completely clear how the superconductivity arises here, essential elements are known: “The crystal is formed by copper-oxygen planes which lie on top of each other like the pages of a book,” explains Cavalleri. The electrons can only move within these planes; the current transport therefore only occurs in two dimensions.
If the material is cooled below 40 Kelvin, a link is suddenly created between these two planes. Physicists explain this using the wave model, according to which the electrons are pictured not as particles, but as waves. Below the transition temperature the electrons from neighbouring planes overlap, and this allows the electric charge carriers to change from one plane to the other. Current is suddenly transported in all three spatial dimensions: the superconducting state has been created.