Superconducting technology is a big deal. The ability to transmit electricity from place to place without losing any of the energy would be a huge boon to the energy crisis. As much as 6.5 percent of the electricity that is generated by the power plant never makes it to its final destination. Instead, it is lost in for the form of heat generated due to the cable’s natural resistance.
But superconductors don’t have this problem. They transmit electricity flawlessly. Because there is no resistance, there is no heat and no energy lost. In fact, if you get a closed-loop system of electricity started inside of a superconducting coil, it will continue one forever and ever.
There’s just one problem; most of the superconducting materials known to man have to be cooled down to about -450®F in order to become superconducting. As you might imagine, this condition isn’t exactly readily available on this planet. Laboratories and industrial plants that use superconductors typically cool the materials down with liquid helium, the procurement and maintenance of which is rather expensive.
There are, however, other types of superconductors that were discovered a couple of decades ago that do not require quite so frigid temperatures. The highest of these special materials is mercury barium calcium copper oxide, which becomes superconducting at -216®F. Though this is still quite a cold temperature, it is much higher than -321®F, the point at which liquid nitrogen boils away. Liquid nitrogen, in comparison to liquid helium, is dirt cheap and easily handled.
The problem with implementing these newly discovered materials, though, is that scientists have absolutely no clue how the hell they work even though there have been more than 100,000 papers published on the topic. Theoretically, it has something to do with the way electrons surround an atom and the intrinsic way that the molecules align to form ordered crystals at a microscopic level.
In a new study appearing in both the journals Nature and Science, a team of researchers including Martin Greven from the University of Minnesota is closing in on the answer. By bombarding one of the most simply formed structures of a high temperature superconductor with neutrons and measuring how these magnetic particles scattered from the crystals, the team was able to reveal some intrinsic properties about how the material works.
Part of what allows electrons to flow from one section of the material to the next without losing any energy is the way electrons move in a sort of loop within these structured sections. Within each crystal of copper-oxide, pairs of electron-current loops flow to produce magnetic moments that point in opposite directions. Theoretically, there are four different configurations these units can take, with three of them directly related to the primary state. The material’s ability to oscillate back and forth between this primary ground state and the other three options is what gives these materials their special properties.
In the research described, the team successfully observed two of these options, allowing them to be further studied. Once a method is determined for seeing the fourth and final option, theories and models can be made of exactly how the process works. And once that is done, it isn’t a far stretch from creating the effect artificially, or even manufacturing materials that enhance it.
The technology has tons of practical applications that will drive the cost of many industrial and laboratory practices into the ground. One such example is the use of superconducting magnets, that use electricity flowing in a circle to create an extremely strong magnet; 100,000 times stronger than the Earth’s own magnetic field.