Advanced Topic

One of the greatest advantages of superconductors is their ability to carry large currents through small areas. A major problem however, is getting the current in and out. Consider a large water main for a major metropolitan city. If the ends of the pipe were small and difficult to attach, the limiting factor would be the connecting pipes not the main. This can be a significant problem with superconductors. They may have very high current densities, but if there is too much resistance in the electrical contacts the current flow will cause heating at the contacts. Power dissipation as heat is equal to the current flow multiplied by the voltage drop. Since superconductivity exists only at low temperatures, this heating causes easy flow of electrical current to be limited. Attaching contact leads to bulk superconductors can be difficult. Many commercially produced superconductors can by purchased with electrical leads already attached. The contact resistance of commercial superconductors are usually superior to contacts that are made in a high school lab.

One method for attaching contact leads to your superconductor requires small gauge silver or copper wire and electrical silver paint. These items are readily available at any electronic supply store. By attaching the leads to the sample with the silver paint as shown in Figure (17) you should have a good four point probe. If the contact resistance is too high, scrape the silver paint away and then try resintering the sample by annealing it again in your oven. When a simple measurement of electrical resistance is made by a two probe connection, you unintentionally also measure the resistance of the contact points. In a normal conductor the resistance of the contact points is relatively small compared to the resistance of the conductor. However, when measuring the resistance of a superconductor, which has very low or no resistance, the contact resistance is very significant.

The effect of the contact resistance can be diminished by the use of a four point probe. Figure (17) shows a four point probe attached to a superconducting sample. A constant current flows through the wires labeled C_1 and C_2. A power supply capable of providing 0.5 amperes is needed. If an ammeter is not built into the power supply an ammeter should be wired into the circuit to monitor the current flow.

If there is any resistance in the sample, a voltage drop will occur between the contact points of current leads as the current spreads and flows. Wires V_1 and V_2are connected to a digital volt meter to detect any voltage drop between their contact points. If these two contacts are physically removed from the current contacts (wires labeled C_1 and C_2), the resistance of the superconductor between wires V_1 and V_2 is the ratio of the voltage to the output current of the power supply, according to Ohm's Law V=IR. If wires V_1 and V_2contact wires C_1 and C_2, the measured resistance R is the sum of the sample resistance and the two contact resistances.

Date posted 04/01/96 (ktb)