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Most conventional superconductors require very low temperatures around absolute zero or -273 C.
In 1986, two relatively unknown physicists, working in a laboratory on a Swiss hilltop, made a discovery that started a revolution.
“It was the Woodstock of condensed matter physics,” said Enrico Rossi, associate professor of physics at William & Mary. “People were so excited. It changed everything.”
Physicists J. Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Mueller discovered superconductivity in ceramic material, specifically lanthanum-based cuprate perovskite, and created the first high-temperature superconductor.
The discovery earned them the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics and held the promise that one day it could be feasible to transmit electricity and information over vast distances with virtually no loss of current or data.
Scientists have long debated the key ingredient that enables the cuprates to become superconducting at high temperatures: Does superconductivity emerge when electrons bind together in pairs, known as Cooper pairs, or when those pairs establish macroscopic phase coherence?
Leveraging the pulsed laser sources and facilities at SBQMI’s new UBC-Moore Centre for Ultrafast Quantum Matter, researchers established a new investigative technique to “watch” what happens to the material’s electrons during those ultrafast timescales.
Researchers at UBC’s Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute (SBQMI) used a state-of-the-art, ultrafast laser funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to answer the question.
The research indicates that the presence of an attractive “glue”, binding electrons into pairs, is necessary but not sufficient to stabilize the superconducting state. Rather, the Cooper pairs must behave coherently as a whole to establish a line of communication, with a single macroscopic quantum phase.
In condensed matter physics, a Cooper pair or BCS pair is a pair of electrons (or different fermions) bound together at low temperatures in a specific way originally depicted in 1956 by American physicist Leon Cooper. Cooper showed that an arbitrary small attraction between electrons in a metal can cause a paired state of electrons to have a lower energy than the Fermi energy, which implies that the pair is bound.
As proposed in BCS theory, the Cooper pair state is responsible for superconductivity. Scientists even won Nobel Prize in 1972 for their work.
Resistance is created when electrons rattle around in the atomic lattice of a material as they move. But when electrons join together to become Cooper pairs, they undergo a remarkable transformation.
Electrons acts as fermions. Cooper pairs, however, act like bosons, which can happily share the same state. That bosonic behavior allows Cooper pairs to coordinate their movements with other sets of Cooper pairs in a way the reduces resistance to zero.
Scientists noted, “The idea that boson-like Cooper pairs are responsible for this metallic state is something of a surprise. because there are elements of quantum theory that suggest this shouldn’t be possible. So, understanding just what is happening in this state could lead to some exciting new physics, but more research will be required.”
Valles said, “The thing about the bosons is that they tend to be in more of a wavelike state than electrons, so we talk about them having a phase and creating interference in much the same way light does. So there might be new modalities for moving charge around in devices by playing with interference between bosons.”