Getting started on superconductivity

After the hoopla surrounding and attention on particle physics subsided, I realized that I’d been riding a speeding wagon all the time. All I’d done is used the lead-up to (the search for the Higgs boson) and the climax itself to teach myself something. Now, it’s left me really excited! Learning about particle physics, I’ve come to understand, is not a single-track course: all the way from making theoretical predictions to having them experimentally verified, particle physics is an amalgamation of far-reaching advancements in a host of other subjects.

One such is superconductivity. Philosophically, it’s a state of existence so far removed from its naturally occurring one that it’s a veritable “freak”. It is common knowledge that everything that’s naturally occurring is equipped to resist change that energizes, to return whenever possible to a state of lower energy. Symmetry and surface tension are great examples of this tendency. Superconductivity, on the other hand, is the desistence of a system to resist the passage of an electric current through it. As a phenomenon that as yet doesn’t manifest in naturally occurring substances, I can’t really opine on its phenomenological “naturalness”.

In particle physics, superconductivity plays a significant role in building powerful particle accelerators. In the presence of a magnetic field, a charged particle moves in a curved trajectory through it because of the Lorentz force acting on it; this fact is used to guide the protons in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN through a ring 27 km long. Because moving in a curved path involves acceleration, each “swing” around the ring happens faster than the last, eventually resulting in the particle traveling at close to the speed of light.

A set of superconducting quadrupole-electromagnets installed at the LHC with the cryogenic cooling system visible in the background

In order to generate these extremely powerful magnetic fields – powerful because of the minuteness of each charge and the velocity required to be achieved – superconducting magnets are used that generate fields of the order of 20 T (to compare: the earth’s magnetic field is 25-60 μT, or close to 500,000-times weaker)! Furthermore, the direction of the magnetic field is also switched accordingly to achieve circular motion, to keep the particle from being swung off into the inner wall of the collider at any point!

To understand the role the phenomenon of superconductivity plays in building these magnets, let’s understand how electromagnets work. In a standard iron-core electromagnet, insulated wire is wound around an iron cylinder, and when a current is passed through the wire, a magnetic field is generated around the cross-section of the wire. Because of the coiling, though, the centre of the magnetic field passes through the axis of the cylinder, whose magnetic permeability magnifies the field by a factor of thousands, itself becoming magnetic.

When the current is turned off, the magnetic field instantaneously disappears. When the number of coils is increased, the strength of the magnetic field increases. When the strength of the current is increased, the strength of the magnetic field increases. However, beyond a point, the heat dissipated due to the wire’s electric resistance reduces the amount of current flowing through it, consequently resulting in a weakening of the core’s magnetic field over time.

It is Ohm’s law that establishes proportionality between voltage (V) and electric current (I), calling the proportionality-constant the material’s electrical resistance: R = V/I. To overcome heating due to resistance, resistance itself must be brought down to zero. According to Ohm’s law, this can be done either by passing a ridiculously large current through the wire or bringing the voltage across its ends down to zero. However, performing either of these changes on conventional conductors is impossible: how does one quickly pass a large volume of water through any pipe across which the pressure difference is miniscule?!

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes

The solution to this unique problem, therefore, lay in a new class of materials that humankind had to prepare, a class of materials that could “instigate” an alternate form of electrical conduction such that an electrical current could pass through it in the absence of a voltage difference. In other words, the material should be able to carry large amounts of current without offering up any resistance to it. This class of materials came to be known as superconductors – after Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered the phenomenon in 1911.

In a conducting material, the electrons that essentially effect the flow of electric current could be thought of as a charged fluid flowing through and around an ionic 3D grid, an arrangement of positively charged nuclei that all together make up the crystal lattice. When a voltage-drop is established, the fluid begins to get excited and moves around, an action called conducting. However, the electrons constantly collide with the ions. The ions, then, absorb some of the energy of the current, start vibrating, and gradually dissipate it as heat. This manifests as the resistance. In a superconductor, however, the fluid exists as a superfluid, and flows such that the electrons never collide into the ions.

In (a classical understanding of) the superfluid state, each electron repels every other electron because of their charge likeness, and attracts the positively charged nuclei. As a result, the nucleus moves very slightly toward the electron, causing an equally slight distortion of the crystal lattice. Because of the newly increased positive-charge density in the vicinity, some more electrons are attracted by the nucleus.

This attraction, which, across the entirety of the lattice, can cause a long-range but weak “draw” of electrons, results in pairs of electrons overcoming their mutual hatred of each other and tending toward one nucleus (or the resultant charge-centre of some nuclei). Effectively, this is a pairing of electrons whose total energy was shown by Leon Cooper in 1956 to be lesser than the energy of the most energetic electron if it had existed unpaired in the material. Subsequently, these pairs came to be called Cooper pairs, and a fluid composed of Cooper pairs, a superfluid (thermodynamically, a superfluid is defined as a fluid that can flow without dissipating any energy).

Although the sea of electrons in the new superconducting class of materials could condense into a superfluid, the fluid itself can’t be expected to flow naturally. Earlier, the application of an electric current imparted enough energy to all the electrons in the metal (via a voltage difference) to move around and to scatter against nuclei to yield resistance. Now, however, upon Cooper-pairing, the superfluid had to be given an environment in which there’d be no vibrating nuclei. And so: enter cryogenics.

The International Linear Collider – Test Area’s (ILCTA) cryogenic refrigerator room

The thermal energy of a crystal lattice is given by E = kT, where ‘k’ is Boltzmann’s constant and T, the temperature. Demonstrably, to reduce the kinetic energy of all nuclei in the lattice to zero, the crystal itself had to be cooled to absolute zero (0 kelvin). This could be achieved by cryogenic cooling techniques. For instance, at the LHC, the superconducting magnets are electromagnets wherein the coiled wire is made of a superconducting material. When cooled to a really low temperature using a two-stage heat-exchanger composed of liquid helium jacketed with liquid nitrogen, the wires can carry extremely large amounts of current to generate very intense magnetic fields.

At the same time, however, if the energy of the superfluid itself surpassed the thermal energy of the lattice, then it could flow without the lattice having to be cooled down. Because the thermal energy is different for different crystals at different ambient temperatures, the challenge now lies in identifying materials that could permit superconductivity at temperatures approaching room-temperature. Now that would be (even more) exciting!

P.S. A lot of the related topics have not been covered in this post, such as the Meissner effect, electron-phonon interactions, properties of cuprates and lanthanides, and Mott insulators. They will be taken up in the future as they’re topics that require in-depth detailing, quite unlike this post which has been constructed as a superfluous introduction only.

1 thought on “Getting started on superconductivity”

Comments are closed.