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Superconductivity

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Superconductivity

You have probably noticed that your computer’s power supply or laptops battery gets warmer as you use it. When you touch the power supply, the heat you feel is thermal energy transformed from electrical energy. This becomes unwanted energy because instead of being used for electrical energy, it is being lost to heat. Since the world we live in mostly depends on efficiency, wouldnt it be nice if we could have no ‘lost energy? This would require zero resistance ... so is this possible? Lets look at the concept of superconductivity!

What are superconductors?

All conductors offer some amount of resistance to the flow of current, even the best ones possible. As current passes through any conductor, it heats up, resulting in a rising temperature and eventually an increase in the resistance offered by the particular conductor. If the temperature of a regular conductor decreases, the resistance it offers also decreases.

However, there is a slight difference for superconductors because they have a characteristic called the critical temperature (Tc). When a superconductors temperature drops below the critical temperature, its resistance suddenly drops down to zero.

The resistance of Mercury

One of the most common examples of a superconductor is Mercury at the critical temperature of 4.2 Kelvin (-269.2°C). This was discovered by the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911.

Superconductivity Resistance of Mercury in superconductivity StudySmarterThe resistance of Mercury relative to the temperature in Kelvin, Oğulcan Tezcan - StudySmarter Originals

Onnes was trying to examine the resistance of different metals relative to the temperature using liquid helium to cool the materials. When he was cooling the sample of Mercury, he realized that as the temperature dropped below 4.2 Kelvin, the resistance suddenly dropped to zero. This temperature is now known as the critical temperature (Tc), and the phenomenon is known as superconductivity.

When a superconductors temperature drops below the critical temperature, its resistance suddenly drops to zero. This is known as the critical temperature (Tc), and the phenomenon is called superconductivity.

If we connect a three-digit ohmmeter across a conductor below the critical temperature, the device will read 0.00Ω. This is not because the actual value of the resistance is zero – it is instead less than 0.01Ω, which a three-digit ohmmeter cannot read.

There are several methods to measure such low resistances, but using an ohmmeter is not one of them when working with superconductors. This also shows us that even a superconductors resistance can't be absolute zero (even though it is theoretically accepted as zero).

Conditions for superconductivity

So if superconductors offer near-zero resistance and are very high in efficiency, why are they not used in everything for conducting electricity? This is because the conditions for superconductivity are not that easy to achieve, and common conductors such as copper, gold, or silver dont exhibit superconductivity.

Three conditions should be fulfilled for materials to achieve superconductivity. These are:

  • Critical temperature (Tc). The temperature of the conductor must be below a certain temperature called the critical temperature (Tc).
  • Critical current density (Jc). The current flowing through a specific cross-section of the conductor should be below a certain value called the critical current density (Jc).
  • Critical magnetic field strength (Hc). The magnetic field strength to which the conductor is exposed must be below a certain value called critical magnetic field strength (Hc).

These values are individual characteristics for different superconductors.

Critical temperature

Lets focus on the more important and commonly known condition, critical temperature.

Superconductivity Superconducting region graph StudySmarterThree conditions affecting superconductivity, Oğulcan Tezcan - StudySmarter Originals

Scientists have been observing different materials in order to find a superconductor with a high critical temperature value for quite some time. In 1911, the critical temperature of Mercury was observed to be 4.2K (-269.2°C). Since then, the superconductor with the highest critical temperature is Mercury Barium Thallium Copper Oxide, which has a critical temperature of 139 Kelvin (-134.15°C).

This is much higher than Mercurys but still really cold compared to room temperatures. This is the main reason why superconductors are not used in every device or project because they are not so cost-effective considering the cooling requirements.

Here is a table of the critical temperatures and critical magnetic fields for different materials.

Material
Symbol
Critical temperature Tc (K)
Critical magnetic field Hc (T)
MercuryHg4.15-3.950.04
LeadPb7.190.08
CadmiumCd11.44.00
TitaniumTi0.390.01
AluminiumAl1.200.01

Although zero resistance to current flow is interesting enough in superconductivity, it is not the only interesting phenomenon. The Meissner effect, which is the exclusion of magnetic fields, is also super cool!

Superconductivity The Meissner effect StudySmarterThe Meissner effect, Wikimedia Commons

The Meissner effect can be observed when a permanent magnet is placed on top of a superconducting material that is below the critical temperature. This levitation will be static since there is an exclusion of magnetic fields.

High-speed trains use this effect to levitate over very strong superconducting magnets. This eliminates the force applied by friction, and when the friction is eliminated, the trains can go as fast as 603 kilometres per hour!

What are the applications of superconductors?

Superconductors are highly important for devices that need low resistance and a high magnetic field. The applications of superconductors include MRI scanners, generators, high-speed trains, and particle accelerators.

Another application of superconductors is called the superconducting quantum interference device, known as SQUID. SQUID is a device that is classified as a highly sensitive magnetometer and is used to measure minuscule magnetic fields. The working process of the SQUID depends on superconducting loops containing two Josephson junctions, as shown in the image below.

When a minuscule magnetic field is present around the SQUID, there will be a present interference effect, which depends on the strength of that magnetic field.

Josephson junction is a device that has a supercurrent continuously flowing across it. Supercurrent is the current that flows through superconducting materials without any dissipation.

Superconductivity Superconducting quantum interference device StudySmarterA diagram of SQUID, Oğulcan Tezcan - StudySmarter Originals

Superconductivity - key takeaways

  • Superconductors offer zero resistance to the flow of current. There is no energy loss as a result.
  • When the temperature of a conductor that exhibits superconductor properties falls below the critical temperature (Tc), it shifts into a superconductive state.
  • There are three conditions that affect superconductivity: critical temperature (Tc), critical current density (Jc), and critical magnetic field strength (Hc).
  • Superconductors are used in various applications, such as MRI scanners, high-speed trains, and particle accelerators.

Frequently Asked Questions about Superconductivity

A superconducting magnet is an electromagnet that is made from superconducting coils. These superconducting coils show zero resistance to the current flow, allowing a supercurrent to flow through itself, which creates an intense magnetic field.

Superconductivity is the phenomenon that explains the ability of specific conductors to show zero resistance to the current flow under a certain temperature called the critical temperature (Tc).

Superconducting levitation works depending on the Meissner effect, which explains the exclusion of magnetic fields. This exclusion causes the permanent magnet to levitate in a static way.

Superconductivity is the phenomenon that explains the ability of specific conductors to show zero resistance to the current flow under a certain temperature called the critical temperature (Tc).

Final Superconductivity Quiz

Question

What is the name of the temperature value when a conductor achieves superconductivity?

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Answer

Critical temperature.

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Question

When a superconductor’s temperature drops below the critical temperature, what happens to the resistance of the conductor?

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Answer

The resistance suddenly drops to zero.

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Question

What is the name of the current density value that current flowing through a conductor should be below in order to achieve superconductivity? 

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Answer

Critical current density.

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Question

Which of the following is not one of the properties affecting superconductivity?

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Answer

Temperature.

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Question

Which of the following is not one of the applications of superconductors?

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Answer

Generators.

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Question

What is the name of the device that has a supercurrent continuously flowing across it?

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Answer

The Josephson Junction.

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Question

What is the name of the current that flows through superconducting materials without any dissipation?


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Answer

The supercurrent.

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Question

Why are superconductors not used in every device/system?

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Answer

The conditions for superconductivity are not that easy to achieve, and common conductors such as copper, gold or silver don't exhibit superconductivity

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Question

What is the short name given to the superconducting quantum interference device?

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Answer

SQUID.

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Question

What is the purpose of the SQUID?

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Answer

To measure minuscule magnetic fields.

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Question

If you connect a three-digit ohmmeter across a conductor below the critical temperature, the device will read 0.00Ω. Which of the following is the reason behind this?


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Answer

Because the actual value of the resistance is not zero but is instead less than 0.01Ω.

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Question

What is the effect where exclusion of magnetic fields is seen?

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Answer

Meissner effect.

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Question

What is superconductivity?

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Answer

Superconductivity is the phenomenon that explains the ability of specific conductors to show zero resistance to the current flow under a certain temperature called the critical temperature(Tc).


Show question

Question

What is a superconducting magnet?

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Answer

An electromagnet that is made from superconducting coils.

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Question

How does superconducting levitation work?

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Answer

Superconducting levitation works because of the Meissner effect, which explains the exclusion of magnetic fields. This exclusion causes the permanent magnet to levitate in a static way.

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