Warmer superconductors could make virtually everything that runs on electricity much more efficient

This view from the side makes an important point: Putting iron selenide on top of STO enhances its superconductivity only if it's applied in a single layer (left). When more than one layer is applied, the natural vibrations coming up from the STO layer don't give electrons the boost of energy they need to pair up and superconduct (right). Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
This view from the side makes an important point: Putting iron selenide on top of STO enhances its superconductivity only if it’s applied in a single layer (left). When more than one layer is applied, the natural vibrations coming up from the STO layer don’t give electrons the boost of energy they need to pair up and superconduct (right).
Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Results are first to suggest how to engineer even warmer superconductors with atom-by-atom control

A study at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory suggests for the first time how scientists might deliberately engineer superconductors that work at higher temperatures.

In their report, a team led by SLAC and Stanford University researchers explains why a thin layer of iron selenide superconducts — carries electricity with 100 percent efficiency — at much higher temperatures when placed atop another material, which is called STO for its main ingredients strontium, titanium and oxygen.

These findings, described today in the journal Nature, open a new chapter in the 30-year quest to develop superconductors that operate at room temperature, which could revolutionize society by making virtually everything that runs on electricity much more efficient. Although today’s high-temperature superconductors operate at much warmer temperatures than conventional superconductors do, they still work only when chilled to minus 135 degrees Celsius or below.

In the new study, the scientists concluded that natural trillion-times-per-second vibrations in the STO travel up into the iron selenide film in distinct packets, like volleys of water droplets shaken off by a wet dog. These vibrations give electrons the energy they need to pair up and superconduct at higher temperatures than they would on their own.

“Our simulations indicate that this approach – using natural vibrations in one material to boost superconductivity in another – could be used to raise the operating temperature of iron-based superconductors by at least 50 percent,” said Zhi-Xun Shen, a professor at SLAC and Stanford University and senior author of the study.

While that’s still nowhere close to room temperature, he added, “We now have the first example of a mechanism that could be used to engineer high-temperature superconductors with atom-by-atom control and make them better.”

Spying on Electrons

The study probed a happy combination of materials developed two years ago by scientists in China. They discovered that when a single layer of iron selenide film is placed atop STO, its maximum superconducting temperature shoots up from 8 degrees to nearly 77 degrees above absolute zero (minus 196 degrees Celsius).

While this was a huge and welcome leap, it would be hard to build on this advance without understanding what, exactly, was going on.

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