One of the ultimate goals of modern physics is to unlock the power of superconductivity, where electricity flows with zero resistance at room temperature.
Progress has been slow, but physicists have just made an unexpected breakthrough. They’ve discovered a superconductor that works in a way no one’s ever seen before – and it opens the door to a whole world of possibilities not considered until now.
In other words, they’ve identified a brand new type of superconductivity.
Why does that matter? Well, when electricity normally flows through a material – for example, the way it travels through wires in the wall when we switch on a light – it’s fast, but surprisingly ineffective.
Electricity is carried by electrons, which bump into atoms in the material along the way, losing some of their energy each time they have one of these collisions. Known as resistance, it’s the reason why electricity grids lose up to 7 percent of their electricity.
But when some materials are chilled to ridiculously cold temperatures, something else happens – the electrons pair up, and begin to flow orderly without resistance.
This is known as superconductivity, and it has incredible potential to revolutionise our world, making our electronics unimaginably more efficient.
The good news is we’ve found the phenomenon in many materials so far. In fact, superconductivity is already used to create the strong magnetic fields in MRI machines and maglev trains.
The bad news is that it currently requires expensive and bulky equipment to keep the superconductors cold enough to achieve this phenomenon – so it remains impractical for broader use.
Now researchers led by the University of Maryland have observed a new type of superconductivity when probing an exotic material at super cool temperatures.
Not only does this type of superconductivity appear in an unexpected material, the phenomenon actually seems to rely on electron interactions that are profoundly different from the pairings we’ve seen to date. And that means we have no idea what kind of potential it might have.
To understand the difference, you need to know that the way electrons interact is dictated by a quantum property called spin.
In regular superconductors, electrons carry a spin referred to as 1/2.
But in this particular material, known as YPtBi, the team found that something else was going on – the electrons appear to have a spin of 3/2.
“No one had really thought that this was possible in solid materials,” explains physicist and senior author Johnpierre Paglione.
“High-spin states in individual atoms are possible but once you put the atoms together in a solid, these states usually break apart and you end up with spin one-half. ”
YPtBi was first discovered to be a superconductor a couple of years ago, and that in itself was a surprise, because the material doesn’t actually fit one of the main criteria – being a relatively good conductor, with a lot of mobile electrons, at normal temperatures.
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