Boffinry excitement in superconducting circles

Topflight boffins believe they may be on the track of the fabled room-temperature superconductor, a technology which - if achieved - promises to revolutionize various fields including hover trains, electric power, mighty dimension-portal atom smashers and even supercomputing.

The new science relates to the study of copper-oxide superconductors. A superconductor is a material which carries an electric current without any resistance: naturally, as a result, it is excellent for generating tremendously powerful magnetic fields. These are useful for such purposes as building MRI scanners, mag-lev hover trains and colossal very-fabric-of-spacetime-rending particle punchers such as the famous Large Hadron Collider.

In general, though, superconductors won't super conduct at normal temperatures: they have to be chilled far below zero in order to work. This makes them difficult and expensive to build and operate, and restricts what can be done with them.

Now, however, boffins at the USA's Brookhaven National Laboratory - working with others around the world - say they have gained important insights into the "pseudogap" phase which copper-oxide superconductors enter as they become too warm for ordinary superconducting.

"Many people consider the disappearance of superconductivity that occurs when the pseudogap phase emerges as an indication that the pseudogap is the killer of room temperature superconductivity in the copper-oxides," says Séamus Davis, chief boffin at the Brookhaven lab's Center for Emergent Superconductivity.

But it seems that these many people may not be entirely right about that. In general, pseudogap (ie room temperature) copper-oxides don't super conduct - don't allow electrons to move with zero resistance. But it appears that the way in which electrons behave within a warm pseudogap-phase copper oxide is very bizarre and worth looking into further.

"Picture the copper atom at the center of the unit, with one oxygen to the 'north' and one to the 'east,' and this whole unit repeating itself over and over across the copper-oxide layer," says Davis. "In every single copper-oxide unit, the tunneling ability of electrons from the northern oxygen atom was different from that of the eastern oxygen."

Apparently this is major stuff: not only are Davis and his collaborators excited, but their research is published this week in premier boffinry mag Nature. In essence, the copper oxides have been shown to behave in some respects like superconductors in the pseudogap phase, which means that at least theoretically superconduction could happen at ordinary temperatures.

"The ultimate goal is to discover or create materials that can act as superconductors, to carry electric current with no energy loss, at room temperature," Davis adds.

That would be excellent news. It would allow power grids to carry electricity with almost no losses, and make machinery such as electric motors and generators vastly more efficient.

Other technologies dependent on magnetism would become much cheaper, smaller and more powerful: for instance mag-lev hover trains, magnetic "cloaking devices" for warships, forcefields for protecting interplanetary astronauts from cosmic radiation, plasma rockets to propel their spaceships, MRI scanners, SQUID miracle-sensors, atom smashers and so on.

Easier and better superconducting magnets might even mean working nuclear-fusion reactors, largely putting an end to the human race's energy problems - and thus potentially to most of its other problems (war, starvation, drought etc) as these often have their roots in energy shortages.

By way of a bit of IT angle, one should also note that the Josephson junctions which can be created using superconductors (and which make SQUIDs work, among other things) could perhaps allow the construction of even-faster multipetaflop supercomputers. If that's not enough, superconducting technology is thought to offer "Super routers" (pdf) capable of handling pipes so fat as to stun the imagination.

The boffins' Nature letter can be read here (abstract free; payment/subscription required for the whole thing)