Major advances in low-temperature refrigeration were made during the late 19th century. Superconductivity was first discovered in 1911 by the Dutch physicist,Heike Kammerlingh Onnes. Onnes dedicated his scientific career to exploring extremely cold refrigeration. On July 10, 1908, he successfully liquified helium by cooling it to 452 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (4 Kelvin or 4 K). Onnes produced only a few milliliters of liquid helium that day, but this was to be the new beginnings of his explorations in temperature regions previously unreachable. Liquid helium enabled him to cool other materials closer to absolute zero (0 Kelvin), the coldest temperature imaginable. Absolute zero is the temperature at which the energy of material becomes as small as possible.

In 1911, Onnes began to investigate the electrical properties of metals in extremely cold temperatures. It had been known for many years that the resistance of metals fell when cooled below room temperature, but it was not known what limiting value the resistance would approach, if the temperature were reduced to very close to 0 K. Some scientists, such as William Kelvin, believed that electrons flowing through a conductor would come to a complete halt as the temperature approached absolute zero. Other scientists, including Onnes, felt that a cold wire's resistance would dissipate. This suggested that there would be a steady decrease in electrical resistance, allowing for better conduction of electricity. At some very low temperature point, scientists felt that there would be a leveling off as the resistance reached some ill-defined minimum value allowing the current to flow with little or no resistance.Onnes passed a current through a very pure mercury wire and measured its resistance as he steadily lowered the temperature. Much to his surprise there was no leveling off of resistance, let alone the stopping of electrons as suggested by Kelvin. At 4.2 K the resistance suddenly vanished. Current was flowing through the mercury wire and nothing was stopping it, the resistance was zero. Figure (1) is a graph of resistance versus temperature in mercury wire as measured by Onnes . According to Onnes, "Mercury has passed into a new state, which on account of its extraordinary electrical properties may be called the superconductive state". The experiment left no doubt about the disappearance of the resistance of a mercury wire. Kamerlingh Onnes called this newly discovered state, Superconductivity.

Onnes recognized the importance of his discovery to the scientific community as well as its commercial potential. An electrical conductor with no resistance could carry current any distance with no losses. In one of Onnes experiments he started a current flowing through a loop of lead wire cooled to 4 K. A year later the current was still flowing without significant current loss. Onnes found that the superconductor exhibited what he called persistent currents, electric currents that continued to flow without an electric potential driving them. Onnes had discovered superconductivity, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913.

Whenever a new scientific discovery is made, researchers must strive to explain their theories. By 1933 Walther Meissner and R. Ochsenfeld discovered that superconductors are more than a perfect conductor of electricity, they also have an interesting magnetic property of excluding a magnetic field. A superconductor will not allow a magnetic field to penetrate its interior. It causes currents to flow that generate a magnetic field inside the superconductor that just balances the field that would have otherwise penetrated the material.

This effect, called the Meissner Effect, causes a phenomenon that is a very popular demonstration of superconductivity. Figure (2) is an image of magnetic field lines from a magnet levitating above a superconductor. The Meissner Effect will occur only if the magnetic field is relatively small. If the magnetic field becomes too great, it penetrates the interior of the metal and the metal loses its superconductivity.

In 1957 scientists began to unlock the mysteries of superconductors. Three American physicists at the University of Illinois, John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and Robert Schrieffer, developed a model that has since stood as a good mental picture of why superconductors behave as they do. The model is expressed in terms of advanced ideas of the science of quantum mechanics, but the main idea of the model suggests that electrons in a superconductor condense into a quantum ground state and travel together collectively and coherently. In 1972, Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their theory of superconductivity,which is now known as the BCS theory, after the initials of their last names.

In 1986, Georg Bednorz and Alex Müller, working at IBM in Zurich Switzerland, were experimenting with a particular class of metal oxide ceramics called perovskites. Bednorz and Müller surveyed hundreds of different oxide compounds. Working with ceramics of lanthanum, barium, copper, and oxygen they found indications of superconductivity at 35 K, a startling 12 K above the old record for a superconductor.Soon researchers from around the world would be working with the new types of superconductors. In February of 1987, a perovskite ceramic material was found to superconduct at 90 K. This discovery was very significant because now it became possible to use liquid nitrogen as a coolant. Because these materials superconduct at significantly higher temperatures they are referred to as High Temperature Superconductors. Since then scientists have experimented with many different forms of perovskites producing compounds that superconduct at temperatures over 130 K. Currently, many governments, corporations and universities are investing large sums of money for research in High Temperature Superconductors. The ease of cooling new superconductors has greatly influenced vast efforts in the development of new materials, material fabrication, and changing theory of the behavior of superconductors at relatively high temperatures. In addition, electrical power applications for the high temperature superconductors are expected to now be practical, thanks to the increased machine reliability and decreased cost associated with the cooling of such devices at temperatures greater than 20 K. The history of superconductors is only just now beginning.

Date posted 04/01/96 (ktb)