by Chris Woodford. Last updated: March 11, 2021.
Trains that float, faster computers
that can store more data, and electric power
that zaps into your home wasting less energy are
just a few of the benefits promised by superconductors—materials that offer little or
no resistance to electricity.
You're probably used to the idea that conductors (such as metals) carry electricity well, while
insulators (such as plastics) barely let it pass through them at all.
But how much do you know about superconductors that eliminate
resistance almost entirely when you cool them down to very low
temperatures? Let's take a closer look!
Photo: The Meissner effect: this tiny ceramic
"floats" on a magnet because
it's acting as a superconductor. We explain how this works in more detail below.
Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory and
US Department of Energy.
How resistance changes with temperature
It's a little bit misleading to divide materials into conductors and
insulators. It's much more accurate to say that all materials conduct electricity,
under the right conditions, but some conduct more easily than
others. When we say a metal conducts electricity well, we really mean
it offers little or no resistance when you try to make a current flow
through it; when we say plastics insulate
well, we're actually saying
that they put up high resistance to
electric currents. Resistance is
often a much more useful concept than trying to divide materials into
"conductors" and "insulators".
One of the interesting things about resistance is how it changes as
you change the temperature. Suppose you have a piece of gold
wire in an electrical circuit. Gold is one of the best conductors there is: it shows very
little resistance to electricity. But increase its temperature and it
puts up much more resistance. Why? Broadly speaking, the higher the
temperature, the more thermal vibrations there are inside the gold's
crystalline structure and the harder electrons (the negatively charged particles inside atoms that carry electric currents) will find it to flow through. Conversely, if you cool gold down, you reduce the vibrations
and make it easier for electrons to flow.
Chart: The resistance of gold is directly related to temperature: the hotter it gets, the more it resists electricity. As we approach absolute zero (0K), the resistance falls almost to zero—which leads us to the idea of superconductivity. Chart plotted using data quoted in Resistivity of Gold,
with original data from "Handbook of Chemistry and Physics" (75th Edition) by David R. Lide. New York: CRC Press, 1996–1997.
Now this is a somewhat simplistic explanation because several different mechanisms
cause resistance and they become more (or less) important at
different temperatures. At low temperatures, for example, impurities
and defects in the material cause most of the resistance. A fairly
complex mathematical equation called Matthiessen's
rule lets you figure out the total resistance of a material at any given temperature
by summing the various effects. But that's much more detail than most
of us want or need to know. I survived my physics degree without
learning Matthiessen's rule—and you can almost certainly manage
without it too.
If resistance increases when you heat metals and falls off when you
cool them, any
scientist worth his or her salt is immediately going to wonder what
happens if you really—and I mean seriously—cool
Many have considered this, but the first person to really probe the
issue, in 1911, was a Dutch physicist named
Heike Kamerlingh Onnes
(1853–1926). When he cooled a wire made of mercury to the toe-tingling temperature of −269°C
(−452°F or 4K), Onnes found that
its electrical resistance suddenly disappeared. In other words, he'd
discovered superconductivity. But it was
a fairly fleeting effect. Onnes found that if he applied a strong magnetic field to his
mercury, the superconductivity vanished as quickly as it had arrived.
Animation: The Meissner effect (also called the Meissner-Ochsenfeld effect). You can make a cooled superconductor (light gray, above)
float and even spin above a permanent magnet (dark gray, below). The superconductor "diverts" (excludes) the magnetic field (red) from the magnet and levitates in mid-air.
Look, no magnetism!
We call materials superconductors because of their "super" ability to
"conduct"—but it's probably not the best name we could have
given them—superconducting is not the only special thing they can do.
Following Onnes' amazing discovery, it took another 20 years or so
before two German physicists, Karl Meissner and Robert Ochsenfeld,
found that superconductors have another amazing trick up their sleeves.
A superconductor is diamagnetic: it refuses to let magnetism penetrate
inside it. How does that work? Stand a superconductor in a magnetic
field and you'll make electric currents flow through its surface.
These currents create a magnetic field that exactly cancels the
original field trying to get inside the superconductor and repelling the magnetic field outside.
This is known as the Meissner effect and it explains how you can make a superconductor
levitate (float) in a magnetic field.
Which materials superconduct?
Not all materials show superconductivity. Apart from mercury, the original
superconductor, you can find the effect in about 25 other elements (mostly metals,
semimetals, or semiconductors), though it's also been discovered in
thousands of compounds and alloys. Each
different material becomes a
superconductor at a slightly different temperature (known as its
critical temperature or Tc). The trouble with most of these materials
is that they superconduct only within a few degrees of absolute zero
(the lowest theoretically possible temperature: −273.15°C,
−459.67°F, or 0K). That means whatever benefit you gain from their lack of
resistance, you probably lose from having to cool them down in the
first place. The idea of a power plant
that gets electricity to your
home down superconducting wires sounds brilliant: it would save huge
amounts of wasted energy. But if you had to cool large parts of the
plant and all the transmission wires to absolute zero, you'd probably
waste far more energy doing that than you'd ever save from having no resistance
in the cables. This is largely why superconductors have yet to make a really big impact on
the world, despite being discovered almost a century ago.
For many years, scientists assumed superconductivity could happen only at very low
temperatures. Then, in 1986, two European scientists working for IBM,
German physicist J. Georg Bednorz (1950–) and Swiss physicist
K. Alex Müller (1927–), discovered a ceramic cuprate (a material containing
copper and oxygen) that could became a superconductor at much higher
temperatures (−238°C, −396°F, or 35K). Other scientists have
since found materials that show superconductivity at even higher
temperatures and the record is currently held by a material called
mercury thallium barium calcium copper oxide
which superconducts at −135°C (−211°F or 138K) and was patented
by Korean scientists in 1996.
Photo: You make materials into superconductors by cooling them to extremely low temperatures. Even so-called "high-temperature" superconductors operate at what are very low temperatures by normal, everyday standards. In this photo, a superconducting electric motor is being cooled to about −179°C (−290°F or 94K) with liquid nitrogen. Picture courtesy of US Department of Energy/Argonne National Laboratory.
The discovery of so-called high-temperature superconductors (HTS) moved research on
enormously. The original superconductors needed temperatures within a
whisker of absolute zero—and you can reach those only by cooling
materials using an expensive coolant gas such as liquid helium. But
the high-temperature superconductors (that's relatively high,
not absolutely high—remember we're still well below minus 100 Celsius and
minus 200 Fahrenheit!) can be cooled using liquid nitrogen instead, which
is about 10 times cheaper to produce. A lot of applications that
weren't economic suddenly became a whole lot more practical when
high-temperature superconductors were discovered.
About 35 years later, in 2020, scientists make another breathrough with the
discovery of materials that
superconduct at everyday temperatures (around 15°C or 59°F)—but there's
still an awkward catch: this happens only at enormously high pressures (over 2 million times
atmospheric pressure). The challenge now is to find materials that superconduct
at everyday temperatures and pressures.
Uses of superconductors
Superconductivity sounds cool, if you'll forgive the pun, but is it anything more than a neat
physics party trick? Yes, and for the very simple reason that much of the
stuff that makes our modern world go round is either electric,
magnetic, or both—and superconductivity can, theoretically at
least, make almost any electromagnetic device work more efficiently.
With the exception of heating elements, which use the resistance of a
wire to turn electrical energy into heat, most electric things get no
benefit from resistance whatsoever. It makes computers hot and slow,
runs batteries flat, burns out lamps, wears electric motors out
before their time, and, all told, is one of the biggest reasons why
our electricity bills are higher than they need to be. Fortunately,
superconductors are starting to change things for the better, albeit
extremely slowly. It's not surprising that low-temperature
superconductors (LTS) are currently used much more than
high-temperature superconductors (HTS), simply because they've been around
longer, are better understood, and (for various reasons) are usually
easier to put to practical use. In the future, however, as scientists
figure out how to achieve superconductivity at higher temperatures,
in a wider range of materials, HTS is likely to become an
increasingly exciting and lucrative technology. But that's enough
about tomorrow—what's happening today?
The most widespread practical use for superconductors at the
moment is in body scanners, based on a cunning bit of science called
NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance). When we direct an intense magnetic
field at an atom, we can make its nucleus resonate (wobble about) and
give off radio waves, just like a wine glass vibrates and "sings"
if you sing near it at just the right frequency. In a body scanner,
superconducting magnets make the powerful magnetic field, which
causes atoms inside the patient's body to give off radio waves. As
the scanner spins around, it picks up these waves and turns them into
an image of what's happening inside the patient's body, much as a
radio telescope picks up patterns of radio waves to draw pictures of
distant galaxies. This is called magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) and
it currently uses low-temperature superconductors.
Artwork: How an MRI scanner works. The patient lies on a platform (1) that moves
into a huge ring containing the scanning equipment. The scanner (2) beams energy into their
body, causing the atoms inside it to vibrate and give off radio waves. These are picked up
by the scanner and turned into an image on a computer screen (3).
Thanks to the huge worldwide interest in CERN's
Collider (LHC), superconducting magnets are now well known for their
role in particle accelerators. If charged particles (like bits of
atoms) move through a magnetic field, they bend round in a curve. We
can use this to accelerate them to incredibly high speeds and
energies so, when they collide, they smash apart and generate new
particles that help to reveal the deeper structures from which atoms
are built. The LHC, for example, uses over 1000 magnets made from a
niobium-titanium alloy (Nb-Ti) cooled almost to absolute zero (also
types of low-temperature superconductors). The magnetic field they
produce measures 8.3 T (tesla), which is over 100,000 times greater
than Earth's magnetic field.
Engineers have been promising us floating trains that use magnetic
levitation ("maglev") since at least the 1960s. One reason
they've yet to take off (literally and figuratively) is that it's
expensive and difficult to make conventional electromagnets that can
lift a train into the air. Despite fervent research, maglev
technology has barely made any impact on railroad travel so far. One
exception is the Japanese SCMaglev system, which uses superconducting
magnets to float trains and speed them along at up to 603 kph (375
mph). You can read more about this in our main article on
linear motors (which includes a box about Maglev).
Artwork: Traditional trains (above) run down rails on wheels; maglev trains (below) float above the rails on a magnetic field (red) produced with superconducting magnets. Maglev technology would be much more practical if superconductors worked at higher temperatures.
Resistance certainly has its uses, but when it comes to making,
transporting, and using electricity, it's very much the enemy: it's
one of the reasons why a mere 20 percent of the energy in a fuel like
oil or coal, burned in a power plant, actually does useful things
inside your home. Resistance explains why electricity has to be
zapped along powerlines at such high voltages, making transmission
much more difficult and dangerous than it would otherwise be. That
could all be about to change. The basic technology we've been using
to produce electricity is pretty much the same as it's been since the
time of Edison and Tesla, at the end of the 19th century, but utility
companies are now experimenting with both low- and high-temperature
superconductors to make generators, powerlines, transformers,
and power storage devices like flywheels that waste considerably less energy.
And it's not just generators and powerlines that stand to benefit.
Electronic devices use much smaller amounts of electricity, in what
we might describe as a more "thoughtful" way. The flow of
electrons isn't designed to carry energy, as such; rather, it's
controlling things, timing other things, making decisions, or storing
information. Here, too, superconductors have their uses. Computer
designers, for example, have long been experimenting with devices
Josephson junctions, based on an effect discovered in 1962 by physicist
Josephson, where electrons "tunnel" from one
superconducting material to another through a thin barrier made of a
material that isn't superconducting. Josephson junctions have been
used to make ultrafast logic gates and extremely sensitive magnetism
detectors called SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference
Devices), which are finding their way into all kinds of things from
improved MRI brain scanners to super-sensitive submarine detectors.