Scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) are currently in the throes of uncovering new superconductor materials that could be very useful for the electronics, medical imaging, microscopy, and electric motors industries, amongst other markets.
In electronics, as electrons move through a circuit, they generate electrical resistance and emit waste energy in the form of heat, which is why, for instance, when our laptops overheat, the internal fan turns on and cools it down. Superconductors are helpful because they don’t create resistance and thus, don’t create waste energy, or heat. Currently, the superconductor materials that do exist don’t operate at high temperatures; instead, they bottom out at -210 °F, which doesn’t work for us when our electronics heat up.
However, the USC scientists’ new superconductor materials look promising, since they can work at higher temperatures. The team discovered that they need to utilize clusters of aluminum atoms called “superatoms,” rather than single atoms. Clusters become superconductive at greater temperatures.
Superconductivity can only occur when Cooper pairs take shape in the material. The electron pairs are only slightly bound together—two electrons are not typically attracted to each other. As a pair, the electrons trigger a process that allows the electrons to stay on their prescribed path and prevents them from wasting energy. External factors, such as heat, can disturb the electrons’ fragile balance, which is the reason why superconductors can only operate at low temperatures.
Aluminum superatoms work at temperatures as low as -280 °F; the hope is that using a diverse set of materials will yield a superconductor that functions at higher temperatures. The USC team believes that grouping different metals into superatoms, instead of just aluminum, could direct them to superconductors that will be optimal for electronic industries. Their discovery could allow our technology to operate more efficiently.
Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan
March 4, 2015
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