TutorialsHow to create a superconductor - Step by Step guide

How to create a superconductor – Step by Step guide

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Superconductivity is a remarkable physical phenomenon characterized by the complete absence of electrical resistance in certain materials when they are cooled below a critical temperature. This critical temperature varies depending on the material. At this point, the material enters a state that allows it to conduct electric current without energy loss, opening the door to various fascinating applications in fields ranging from medical technology to quantum computing.

The Discovery of Superconductivity

The phenomenon of superconductivity was first discovered in 1911 by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who observed it in mercury cooled to the temperature of liquid helium (around 4.2 Kelvin).

Basic Concepts

  1. Resistance and Temperature: In normal conductors, electrical resistance decreases as temperature decreases but never reaches zero. In superconductors, resistance drops abruptly to zero at the critical temperature.
  2. Meissner Effect: Superconductors also exhibit the Meissner effect, where they expel all magnetic field lines from their interior, except in a thin layer at the surface. This is a defining feature of superconductivity.

Theoretical Framework

  1. BCS Theory: The Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer (BCS) theory is the first successful microscopic theory of superconductivity, proposed in 1957. It explains superconductivity as a result of electron pairs, known as Cooper pairs, moving in a correlated way that avoids scattering off the lattice structure of the material. The BCS formula for the critical temperature Tc​ is given by: Tc​=​(ℏωD / kB​) * exp(−(1 / N(0)V)) where ℏ is the reduced Planck constant, ωD​ is the Debye frequency, kB​ is the Boltzmann constant, N(0) is the density of states at the Fermi level, and V is the electron-phonon coupling constant.
Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer. Credit: www.researchgate.net
  1. High-Temperature Superconductors: Discovered in the 1980s, these materials become superconducting at temperatures significantly higher than those required for traditional superconductors. They operate based on principles not fully explained by the BCS theory, and their exploration is an active area of research.

Materials Matter: Exploring the Key Components of a Superconductor

The creation and functionality of superconductors heavily depend on the materials used. Understanding the properties and types of materials that can become superconductors is crucial in the field of superconductivity.

Types of Superconducting Materials

  1. Elemental Superconductors: These are pure elements, like niobium or mercury, which exhibit superconductivity. For instance, niobium has one of the highest critical temperatures (Tc​) among elemental superconductors at 9.26 K.
  2. Alloy Superconductors: Alloys like niobium-titanium (NbTi) and niobium-tin (Nb3Sn) are examples where two or more elements are combined, often resulting in higher Tc​ and better mechanical properties than elemental superconductors.
  3. High-Temperature Superconductors (HTS): These are complex compounds like yttrium barium copper oxide (YBa2Cu3O7) that become superconducting at temperatures significantly higher than traditional superconductors. HTS materials can superconduct at temperatures as high as 138 K, which is achievable with liquid nitrogen cooling.
yttrium barium copper oxide

The Role of Crystal Structure

The crystal structure of a material plays a vital role in its superconducting properties. The arrangement of atoms and the electronic structure of the crystal influence how electrons pair up (forming Cooper pairs) and move without resistance.

  1. BCS Theory and Electron Pairing: According to the BCS theory, electron pairing in superconductors is mediated by phonons (quantized lattice vibrations). The likelihood of this pairing is affected by the crystal lattice structure.
  2. London Penetration Depth (λ): This is a key parameter in superconductors, representing the depth to which a magnetic field can penetrate a superconductor. It depends on the density of superconducting electron pairs and is given by:

Material Challenges and Innovations

  1. Critical Current Density (Jc): This is the maximum current density a superconductor can carry without losing its superconducting properties. Improving Jc is a major focus in material research for practical applications.
  2. Strain and Stress Tolerance: Superconducting materials, especially those used in high magnetic fields like in MRI machines, must withstand mechanical stresses without losing their superconducting properties.
  3. Chemical Stability and Fabrication: The materials need to be chemically stable and amenable to fabrication into wires, tapes, or other forms needed for practical applications.

Step-by-Step Guide: Creating Your First Superconductor

Creating a superconductor involves a series of precise and controlled steps. This guide outlines the process for fabricating a basic superconductor, using commonly studied materials like yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO), a high-temperature superconductor.

Materials and Equipment

  1. Materials: Yttrium oxide (Y2O3), barium carbonate (BaCO3), and copper oxide (CuO).
  2. Equipment: Furnace capable of reaching at least 1000°C, grinding equipment, pellet press, and a cryogenic system (like liquid nitrogen) for testing superconductivity.

Step-by-Step Process

  1. Weighing and Mixing: Accurately weigh yttrium oxide, barium carbonate, and copper oxide in the stoichiometric ratio of Y:Ba:Cu = 1:2:3. Mix these powders thoroughly to ensure uniformity.
  2. Calcination: Heat the mixed powder in a furnace at around 900°C for several hours. This step decomposes the barium carbonate and initiates the reaction to form YBCO.
  3. Grinding: After calcination, grind the product to a fine powder. This increases the reaction surface area for the next step.
  4. Pressing Pellets: Use a pellet press to form the powder into discs or pellets. This compacts the material, necessary for creating a dense superconducting phase.
  5. Sintering: Heat the pellets in the furnace at a higher temperature, typically around 950°C to 1000°C. Sintering for several hours allows the YBCO phase to form and densify.
  6. Oxygen Annealing: Cool the pellets down to about 400-500°C and hold at this temperature in an oxygen-rich atmosphere for several hours. This step introduces oxygen into the crystal structure, crucial for the superconducting properties.
  7. Testing for Superconductivity: Finally, cool the material in a cryogenic system like liquid nitrogen (77 K). Test for superconductivity using a magnet. A superconductor will exhibit the Meissner effect, repelling the magnetic field.

Safety and Considerations

  • Handling of Chemicals: Use proper safety equipment when handling chemicals, especially during the grinding and mixing of powders.
  • High-Temperature Operations: Ensure safety protocols are followed when operating the high-temperature furnace.
  • Cryogenic Precautions: Handle liquid nitrogen with care, using appropriate cryogenic gloves and face protection.

Creating a superconductor, particularly a high-temperature one like YBCO, is a complex process requiring precision and care. The steps outlined provide a fundamental approach to synthesizing a superconductor, which can then be tested for its unique properties such as zero electrical resistance and the Meissner effect. This process not only demonstrates the fascinating world of superconductivity but also paves the way for further experimentation and research in this field.

Great video about explanation of such process:

Challenges and Solutions: Overcoming Obstacles in Superconductor Creation

The fabrication and application of superconductors come with a range of challenges, from material intricacies to implementation hurdles. Understanding and overcoming these obstacles is crucial for advancing superconductor technology.

1. High Critical Temperature

  • Challenge: Finding materials that become superconducting at higher temperatures. Most conventional superconductors only work at temperatures close to absolute zero.
  • Solution: Research in high-temperature superconductors (HTS) like cuprates and iron-based superconductors. These materials can superconduct at the much higher temperatures of liquid nitrogen (77 K), significantly reducing cooling costs.

2. Material Durability and Flexibility

  • Challenge: Many superconducting materials are brittle and difficult to manufacture into practical forms like wires or tapes.
  • Solution: Development of composite materials, where superconducting compounds are embedded in a flexible matrix. For example, HTS wires often consist of superconducting filaments within a silver matrix.

3. High Critical Magnetic Field

  • Challenge: Superconductors can lose their superconducting properties in strong magnetic fields, limiting their use in applications like MRI machines.
  • Solution: Research into type II superconductors, which can withstand much higher magnetic fields than type I superconductors. The use of niobium-tin (Nb3Sn) and niobium-titanium (NbTi) alloys in these applications is common.

4. High Critical Current Density

  • Challenge: Ensuring superconductors can carry sufficient current for practical applications without losing their superconducting properties.
  • Solution: Improving the crystal structure and purity of superconducting materials to minimize defects that impede current flow. Advanced fabrication techniques, such as epitaxial growth, have been developed for this purpose.

5. Economic Viability

  • Challenge: The cost of materials and cooling systems makes some superconductors economically unfeasible for widespread application.
  • Solution: Ongoing research aims to find less expensive materials and more efficient cooling methods. Advances in refrigeration technology and the discovery of new superconducting materials are key areas of focus.

6. Quantum Fluctuations

  • Challenge: In very small superconductors, quantum fluctuations can disrupt superconductivity, a problem for applications in quantum computing.
  • Solution: Designing and engineering materials at the nanoscale to mitigate these effects. Research is focused on understanding the quantum behavior in superconductors to harness it for quantum computing applications.

7. Energy Losses in Alternating Current (AC) Applications

  • Challenge: Superconductors can experience energy losses when used with alternating current, limiting their effectiveness in AC power systems.
  • Solution: Research into ways to minimize these losses, such as developing materials with higher ‘flux pinning’ capabilities, which can prevent the movement of magnetic vortices within the superconductor.

Next-Gen Superconductors and Their Potential

The field of superconductivity is rapidly evolving, with significant advancements and discoveries shaping its future. These developments not only enhance our understanding of superconductivity but also open new avenues for practical applications.

1. New Materials and Mechanisms

  • Nickelates as a New Class: Following the era of cuprates in the 1980s, nickelates have emerged as a promising new class of superconducting materials. These materials offer a different chemical composition, potentially leading to novel superconducting properties and higher critical temperatures.
  • Hydrogen-rich Hydrides: Scientists are exploring hydrogen-rich hydrides as potential room-temperature superconductors. These materials, such as metallic hydrogen and its compounds, might achieve superconductivity at room temperature, albeit under extremely high pressures.

2. Technological Innovations

  • Superconducting Diodes: Advances in superconducting diodes have been reported, where tiny asymmetries in the diodes create unique properties that could be harnessed for more efficient energy use in various applications.

3. Cutting-edge Research and Theoretical Advances

  • Manipulating Atomic Orbitals: Recent studies using ultrabright X-rays have shown that manipulating the atomic orbitals in materials like iron selenide can induce superconductivity. This discovery opens up new pathways for understanding and controlling the superconducting state.

4. Machine Learning and AI in Material Discovery

  • AI/ML in Superconductor Research: The use of artificial intelligence and machine learning has accelerated the discovery of new superconducting materials. By building extensive databases with atomic-level information and combining them with quantum mechanical computational methods, researchers are identifying potential superconductors more rapidly and reliably.
  • Chromium Hydride (CrH and CrH2): Recent AI-driven research has identified chromium hydride as a possible superconductor, predicted to exhibit superconductivity at around 10–20 Kelvin. This discovery demonstrates the potential of AI/ML in uncovering new superconductors.
  • Ambitious Goals: The overarching aim is to develop an advanced AI/ML platform to discover superconductors that can operate at ambient pressure and temperatures. Achieving this could revolutionize technology and daily life with applications like ultra-efficient electricity grids and ultrapowerful magnets for levitating trains and controlling fusion reactors.

5. Challenges and Controversies

  • LK-99 Superconductor: A recent claim of a room-temperature superconductor, LK-99, became an online sensation. However, replication efforts by scientists and amateurs have fallen short, and the scientific community remains skeptical about these results.
Michal Pukala
Electronics and Telecommunications engineer with Electro-energetics Master degree graduation. Lightning designer experienced engineer. Currently working in IT industry.