Sunday, May 29, 2005

Weird Science: Superconductivity

Superconductivity - electricity without resistance. In this case, resistance really is futile.

In best Yoda voice - Relatively new discovery is Superconductivity? - Sorry Yoda, it’s not. You see before "The Big One" - "The War to end all Wars" a discovery was made by a Dutch physicist named Heinke Kamerlingh Omnes (Poor guy - I wonder if he was teased as a child?) And the discovery was superconductivity. There was probably partying in the streets, mead all around and fireworks. . . . or not - it was 1911 after all. Most likely a quiet cup of tea and a scientific paper from Heinke instead. But what a discovery.

So a couple of big wars happened, and lots more smaller ones and then Heinke’s discovery gets refined by three more physicists (American this time) named John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer. (They were most likely teased as children too). They postulated that electrons, lonely and afraid - (okay I added the lonely and afraid part) - pair up ( maybe this is where the wisdom of never swimming alone came from) and cruise through certain materials avoiding impacts with impurities thus losing no energy. Pretty slick postulate. It’s officially called the BCS theory. And it doesn’t stand for (Bi-Carbonate-Soda) either, although I’m sure these three needed some working the theory out. It’s actually just the first letter of each of their last names.

Anyway, the BCS theory awarded B, C and S the Nobel prize in 1972. Not too shabby. Then along comes the eighties - big hair, synthesizer music with drum machines, J. George Bednorz and K Alex Muller. By mucking about with all kinds of exotic materials, (they were most likely teased as children too), Bednorz and Muller discovered a ceramic material in 1986 (containing lanthanum, barium, copper and oxygen - did these guys ever have wives or girlfriends?) which became superconductive at 35 degrees Kelvin, a record high temperature for superconductivity at that time. And an even bigger surprise comes the next year in 1987 when this dynamic duo wins the Nobel prize for the discovery. Usually Nobel prizes are not handed out until 20 or more years after such a find. Must have been a real dud year for physics?

So what is superconductivity good for besides winning Nobel prizes? Well the MRI scanner uses superconductors in its inner workings, and Japan even built a maglev (magnetically levitated) train that clocked in at over 360 miles per hour (picture the remake of "Stand By Me" - maglev train 1, kids 0). Many more uses will arise and are being worked on in the areas of power generation, electric motors and electromagnets. And as more exotic materials are found to reach superconductivity at higher temperatures (Today’s record is sitting at 138 Kelvin.), even more uses will come about.

And did you know that 15 percent of the electricity generated is used to overcome the resistance in traditional copper wire? And that Napoleon’s white horse was white?

Drop by next Sunday for more Weird Science.

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