Triggering room-temperature superconductivity with light

Scientists discover that triggering superconductivity with a flash of light involves the same fundamental physics that are at work in the more stable states needed for devices, opening a new path toward producing room-temperature superconductivity.

Much like people can learn more about themselves by stepping outside of their comfort zones, researchers can learn more about a system by giving it a jolt that makes it a little unstable – scientists call this “out of equilibrium” – and watching what happens as it settles back down into a more stable state.

In the case of a superconducting material known as yttrium barium copper oxide, or YBCO, experiments have shown that under certain conditions, knocking it out of equilibrium with a laser pulse allows it to superconduct – conduct electrical current with no loss – at much closer to room temperature than researchers expected. This could be a big deal, given that scientists have been pursuing room-temperature superconductors for more than three decades.

But do observations of this unstable state have any bearing on how high-temperature superconductors would work in the real world, where applications like power lines, maglev trains, particle accelerators and medical equipment require them to be stable?

A study published in Science Advances today suggests that the answer is yes.

“People thought that even though this type of study was useful, it was not very promising for future applications,” said Jun-Sik Lee, a staff scientist at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and leader of the international research team that carried out the study.

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: To study superconducting materials in their “normal,” non-superconducting state, scientists usually switch off superconductivity by exposing the material to a magnetic field, left. SLAC scientists discovered that turning off superconductivity with a flash of light, right, produces a normal state with very similar fundamental physics that is also unstable and can host brief flashes of room-temperature superconductivity. These results open a new path toward producing room-temperature superconductivity that’s stable enough for practical devices.

Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory