New phase of matter hiding in the ‘gap’

STANFORD (US) — Scientists have found the strongest evidence for a new phase of matter by studying a puzzling gap in the electronic structures of some high-temperature superconductors.

Understanding this “pseudogap” has been a 20-year quest for researchers who ultimately hope to find superconductors that operate at room temperature.

“Our findings point to management and control of this other phase as the correct path toward optimizing these novel superconductors for energy applications, as well as searching for new superconductors,” says Zhi-Xun Shen of the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science (SIMES), a joint institute of the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University.

Shen led the team of researchers that made the discovery; their findings appear in the March 25 issue of Science.

Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity with 100 percent efficiency, losing nothing to resistance. Currently used in medical imaging, highly efficient electrical generators and maglev trains, they have the potential to become a truly transformative technology; energy applications would be just one beneficiary.

This promise is hampered by one thing: They work only at extremely low temperatures. Although research over the past 25 years has developed “high-temperature superconductors” that work at warmer temperatures, even the warmest of them—the cuprates—must be chilled half-way to absolute zero before they will superconduct.

The prospect of being able to dramatically increase that working temperature, thus making superconductors easier and cheaper to use, has kept interest in the cuprates at the boiling point. But to change something you have to understand it, and a puzzle called the pseudogap has stood in the way.

One hallmark of a superconductor is a so-called “energy gap” that appears when the material transitions into its superconducting phase. The gap in electron energies arises when electrons pair off at a lower energy to do the actual job of superconducting electric current.

When most of these materials warm to the point that they can no longer superconduct, the electron pairs split up, the electrons start to regain their previous energies, and the gap closes. But in the cuprates, the gap persists even above superconducting temperatures. This is the pseudogap, and it doesn’t fully disappear until a second critical temperature called T* (pronounced “T-star”) is reached. T* can be 100 degrees higher than the temperature at which superconductivity begins.

The electrons in the pseudogap state aren’t superconducting—so what are they doing? That’s the puzzle that’s had condensed matter physicists scratching their heads for two decades.

“A clear answer as to whether such a gap is just an extension of superconductivity or a harbinger of another phase is a critical step in developing better superconductors,” Shen says.

In work done at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Advanced Light Source, and Stanford University, Shen’s team looked at a sample of a cuprate superconductor from the inside out. They examined electronic behavior at the sample’s surface, thermodynamic behavior in the sample’s interior, and changes to the sample’s dynamic properties over time using a trifecta of measurement techniques never before employed together.

Superconductors conduct electricity with 100 percent efficiency, losing none of it to resistance. The few high-temperature superconducting wires on the right conduct as much current as all the copper cables on the left. (Photo courtesy of American Superconductor.)

“There is much to be said about using the same material and three different techniques to tackle the problem,” says condensed matter physicist Sudip Chakravarty of the University of California Los Angeles, who was not involved in the research. “Even after decades of research this is a key unanswered question.”

The team’s findings: electrons in the pseudogap phase are not pairing up. They reorganize into a distinct yet elusive order of their own. In fact, the new order is also present when the material is superconducting; it had been overlooked before, masked by the behavior of superconducting electron pairs.

Simply knowing the pseudogap indicates a new phase of matter provides a clear signpost for follow-up research, according to Ruihua He, a post-doctoral researcher at the Advanced Light Source and first author of the paper. He outlined the next steps:

“First to-do: uncover the nature of the pseudogap order. Second to-do: determine whether the pseudogap order is friend or foe to superconductivity. Third to-do: find a way to promote the pseudogap order if it’s a friend and suppress it if it’s a foe.”

According to Makoto Hashimoto, a coauthor on the paper and SSRL staff scientist, their work “makes the high-temperature superconductor roadmap much clearer than before, and a good roadmap is important for any big science project.”

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  1. Alex Loseman

    I believe a superconductor would exhibit completely different properties in a true vacuum. Using appropriate magnetic fields to displace the aether around the conductor might prevent loss associated with Coulombs law and such. Aether (the stuff of torsion fields) causes resistance, and aether acts as a medium through which waves can travel and escape your system. No medium, no escape, so.. more efficiency could be expected in your system.

  2. Mr. A

    Ummm…. The aether? isn’t that from the 1900′s. E&M waves don’t need any medium to travel through, they are self propogating. That is why they travel through vacuum.

    Also, after googling you “torsion field” here is what I found: Torsion field – (pseudoscience)

    lol, good luck with your little scheme of aether and all that crap :)

  3. Alex Loseman

    I’m glad you could afford to use so much etiquette in criticizing my opinions and suggestions.

    Aether was coined by the Greeks by the way, and its popularity re-emerged in the early 1900′s with inventors like Tesla. Aether is just another name for the subatomic material that acts like a liquid much thinner than a sea of atoms. Its what pushes on you when you travel through space (inertia), its what pushes on you from all sides when it is displaced by enough matter (gravity), and its what allows for waves to travel in “space” which is not a true vacuum. What did you think gravity, inertia, light, and mass all had to do with each other? I mean, what did you think was being “curved” when space is curved? Its just creating more dense space, or better put, more dense aether. If you have a better explanation, please enlighten me.

    (By the way, torsion fields are vortexes of aether which can manipulate the propagation of light waves as well as change the mass of matter within its field. Torsion fields are a big part of toroidal fields which make up the electromagnetic field of a basic dipole.)

    And my scheme of aether is working just fine, thank you. I am a self-trained engineer working in the field of electromagnetism and the extraction of energy from the vacuum of space. I’m twenty years old and head of an R&D project for an engineering company. What do you do for a living Mr. A?

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