Substantial Increases Made in Superconductivity

By Sullivan, Walter | THE JOURNAL RECORD, February 11, 1987 | Go to article overview

Substantial Increases Made in Superconductivity


Sullivan, Walter, THE JOURNAL RECORD


NEW YORK - After a dozen years of futile efforts to raise the temperature at which materials become superconducting, researchers at the University of Houston and at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey have achieved sudden and substantial increases.

The discovery has vast implications for such diverse fields as electrical transmission and generation, energy storage and the generation of fusion energy.

The achievements also mean that superconductivity, in which materials lose all resistance to electricity, can be more widely applied for scientific research and could substantially reduce the cost of the proposed superconducting atom smasher with a 60-mile acceleration ring.

In the early 1970s researchers at Bell Laboratories and Westinghouse found substances that became superconducting when cooled to 23 degrees Kelvin, 23 degrees above absolute zero. Absolute zero, the total absence of heat, occurs at minus 273 degrees Celsius, or 460 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

By 1984, scientists working with a niobium-germanium alloy had raised this only one degree. In late December, Dr. Paul C.W. Chu at the University of Houston reported that under high pressure, a few hundred thousand pounds per square inch, a compound of lanthanum, barium, copper and oxygen becomes superconducting at 40.2 degrees Kelvin.

However, AT&T Bell Laboratories, following a similar line of research, reported production of an alloy that at normal pressure begins its transition to superconductivity at 40 degrees Kelvin and becomes fully superconducting when cooled to 36 degrees. Participants in that project, while reluctant to provide details until they apply for a patent, said their approach enjoyed an advantage because high pressure is not necessary.

Electrical resistance increases as temperatures rise above absolute zero because atoms in the conducting material oscillate over increasingly wider distances, and this oscillation interferes with the flow of electrons in an electrical current.

Chu said his work with a lanthanum-barium-copper-oxide gave promise of possible breakthroughs that could raise the temperature to 50 degrees Kelvin in the near future and possibly as high as 77 degrees.

These developments follow a discovery reported last April by researchers at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory in Switzerland. …

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