superconductivity, abnormally high electrical conductivity of certain substances. The phenomenon was discovered in 1911 by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who found that the resistance of mercury dropped suddenly to zero at a temperature of about 4.2°K; he received (1913) the Nobel Prize for the discovery. For the next 75 years there followed a rather steady string of announcements of new materials that become superconducting near absolute zero. A major breakthrough occurred in 1986 when Karl Alexander Müller and J. Georg Bednorz announced that they had discovered a new class of copper-oxide materials that become superconducting at temperatures exceeding 70°K. The work of Müller and Bednorz, which earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1987, precipitated a host of discoveries of other high-temperature cuprate superconductors that exhibit lossless electrical flow at temperatures up to nearly 140°K. In 2008 Hideo Hosono and a Japanese team announced the discovery of a iron-arsenic high-temperature superconductor, and since then other such iron-based superconductors have been identified.
Classical superconductivity (superconductivity at temperatures near absolute zero) is displayed by some metals, including zinc, magnesium, lead, gray tin, aluminum, mercury, and cadmium. Other metals, such as molybdenum, may exhibit superconductivity after high purification. More than 50 elements are superconductive at temperatures near absolute; some, such as europium, only under extreme pressure as well. Alloys (e.g., two parts of gold to one part of bismuth) and such compounds as tungsten carbide and lead sulfide may also be superconductors.
Thin films of normal metals and superconductors that are brought into contact can form superconductive electronic devices, which replace transistors in some applications. An interesting aspect of the phenomenon is the continued flow of current in a superconducting circuit after the source of current has been shut off; for example, if a lead ring is immersed in liquid helium, an electric current that is induced magnetically will continue to flow after the removal of the magnetic field. Powerful electromagnets, which, once energized, retain magnetism virtually indefinitely, have been developed using several superconductors.
The 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to J. Bardeen, L. Cooper, and S. Schrieffer for their theory (known as the BCS theory) of classical superconductors. This quantum-mechanical theory proposes that at very low temperatures electrons in an electric current move in pairs. Such pairing enables them to move through a crystal lattice without having their motion disrupted by collisions with the lattice. Several theories of high-temperature superconductors have been proposed, but none has been experimentally confirmed.
See J. W. Lynn, ed., High-Temperature Superconductivity (1990).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.