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The low-down on superconductivity

By Edited Nov 21, 2016 1 1

Superconductivity! What a buzzword that has become in the last few years as we inch closer and closer to the holy grail of a superconductor working at room temperature. But what exactly is a superconductor and what exactly would it do for you if a room temperature superconductor was to be invented?


Well to answer the first question, we need to put down a few basics. There are many types of conductors (a material that can conduct electricity) around, and most of them are metals. These metals are extremely close to being a perfect conductor, a perfect conductor would lose 0% of the electric current moving from one place to the next. But in reality they are NOT perfect conductors, and so all the electrical equipment you use every day, as well as all the huge wires you see transferring electricity from the powerplants to your home, are losing part of the electrical energy in transit (it turns into heat). But what if we somehow managed to create a perfect conductor? Well that would be a superconductor and there are already several different types of superconductors out there!


What's the deal then? Why isn't your iPod decked with sweet superconductors? Well there is a problem, so far we have only been able to find superconductors at extremely low temperatures. In fact, the first superconductor ever found was at only 4.2 Kelvin (that's -452 °F or -268 °C), and currently the world record for the highest operating temperature of a superconductor is 195 °K, or -108 °F (although i believe they are still waiting for confirmation on that one). At first only extremely low temperature superconductors were found, and scientists had to use liquid helium to cool their materials down, which is a very expensive material, making it way too expensive and impractical for almost all applications. But there was a breakthrough once scientists managed to create a superconductor that operated above 73 °Kelvin which prompted superconductors to be used in a veriety of places. What's so special about the 73 degrees you may ask? That is the temperature that liquid nitrogen stays at, which means that any superconductor that operates at a higher temperature then that, can be cooled down to superconductivity using liquid nitrogen! This is a HUGE Deal because a gallon of liquid nitrogen costs about the same as a gallon of milk! Today superconductors are used in a verity of places, for example in MRI machines and even commercial power grids are using this technology. Most recently the worlds biggest physics experiment, the Large Hadron Collider put in HUGE superconductors to create extremely large magnetic fields meant to bend particles in their enormous machine.


You may think "what's the big hold up? why don't they just smash together some molecules and make a room temperature superconductor", well it's actually a bit complicated, as there is no complete theory explaining how high temperature superconductors work! So there is no rigid theoretical framework they can use and say "If we just put these things together we'll have a superconductor", it's a bit more trial and error then that.


But fear not! Things are actually looking up and it seems that every month there is new news claiming that scientists have now gained new insights into how these things work, taking small babysteps towards a theory that could perhaps explain high-temp superconductor and hopefully predict what would be needed for a room-temp one.

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Comments

Dec 25, 2011 9:38am
thehigherstandard
Nice article. Thanks for the information.
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