Researchers investigate the origins of superconductivity

The first scientific paper published with data obtained at the EMA beamline studied the relationship between skutterudite’s superconducting properties and the distance between their atoms.

In Brazil, about 7.5% of the electricity produced is lost in transmission and distribution. This happens because the materials that make up these systems are not perfect electrical conductors and dissipate part of the energy, for example, in the form of heat. Similarly, even though electric cars are much more efficient than combustion-engine vehicles, they can still lose up to 15 percent of their energy during the charging process.

Thus, the challenges of achieving sustainable development lie not only in the availability of abundant, clean, and cheap energy, but also in the development of new, efficient, and low-cost energy transport and storage systems.

In turn, these new systems require research into new materials with special properties, such as superconducting materials. Superconductivity is the property that allows certain materials to conduct electric current without resistance and therefore without energy loss. Currently, however, a major limitation for the large-scale use of superconducting materials is their need to be kept at very low temperatures, close to absolute zero (-273.15°C), which requires their association with large cooling infrastructures. In these conditions, superconductors have applications in MRI machines and other high-performance medical equipment, as well as in scientific research equipment, such as the super-magnets used in particle accelerators.

Although superconductivity has been known for more than a century, its origin is still a matter of intense debate in the scientific community. Why do certain materials exhibit superconductivity while others do not? Once this is known, it will be possible to build materials that are superconducting even under ambient temperature and pressure conditions, allowing a true technological revolution, not only in the transmission and storage of energy but also in all kinds of electrical equipment in everyday life.

The movement of electrons without resistance along a superconducting material is understood so far to be possible by the union of two electrons (called Cooper pairs) that, with the help of a deformation in the material’s lattice (called a phonon), can overcome Coulombian repulsion and start moving as a single particle.

The question to which there is still no satisfactory answer is: what makes these electrons want to come together in pairs? Among the various hypotheses, one possibility is that this phenomenon would be connected to the distance between the atoms in the superconducting material.

Thus, in research published in the journal Materials, researchers from the Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials (CNPEM), and collaborators from Germany, investigated two materials (LaPt4Ge12 and PrPt4Ge12) whose crystalline structure is known as skutterudite to test the hypothesis that superconductivity would be related to the distance between the atoms of the material. This was the first scientific paper published with data obtained at the EMA beamline of CNPEM’s synchrotron light source Sirius.

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