Contact

Andreas Dienst

Phone: +44 1865 282875

Contact

Prof. Andrea Cavalleri

Max-Planck-Forschungsgruppe Strukturelle Dynamik

MPRD Sructural Dynamics at CFEL

Phone: +49 40 8998-5356

Dr. Matthias Hoffmann

Max-Planck-Forschungsgruppe Strukturelle Dynamik

http://www.mpg.de/1022280/Forschungsgruppe_Hamburg

Phone: +49 40 8998-5371

Original publication

A. Dienst, M. Hoffmann, D. Fausti, J. Petersen, S. Pyon, T. Takayama, H. Takagi, A. Cavalleri
Bi-directional ultrafast electric-field gating of interlayer charge transport in a cuprate superconductor
Nature Photonics, adv. Online public., 26. Juni 2011, DOI: 10.1038/NPHOTON.2011.124

Quantum Physics . Solid State Research

Ultrafast switch for superconductors

Terahertz pulses control the lossless conduction of electricity

July 05, 2011

A high-temperature superconductor can now be switched on and off within a trillionth of a second – 100 years after the discovery of superconductivity and 25 years after the first high-temperature superconductor was. A team including physicists from the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Research Group for Structural Dynamics at the University of Hamburg has realised an ultrafast superconducting switch by using intense terahertz pulses. This experiment opens up the possibility to discover more about the still unsettled cause of this type of superconductivity, and also hints at possible applications for ultrafast electronics in the future.
The superconducting transport between the layers of a cuprate crystal (three layers, red and blue spheres represent the oxygen and copper atoms respectively) is controlled with an ultrashort terahertz pulse (yellow in the background). The three-dimensional superconductivity can thus be switched on and off very quickly (orange spheres represent electrons). Zoom Image
The superconducting transport between the layers of a cuprate crystal (three layers, red and blue spheres represent the oxygen and copper atoms respectively) is controlled with an ultrashort terahertz pulse (yellow in the background). The three-dimensional superconductivity can thus be switched on and off very quickly (orange spheres represent electrons). [less]

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.

 
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