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What is Superconductivity?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Superconductivity

Mains level : Not Much

On a larger scale, electric grids, such as high power lines, lose over 5 per cent of their energy in the process of transmission.

In India, we often get to hear about the transmission losses in DISCOMS. Such losses can be zeroed with the application of superconducting cables (which is practically impossible unless we find a normal working one). The phenomena, superconductivity, however is not new to us, UPSC may end up asking some tricky statements in the prelims regarding it.

Heat losses

Waste heat is all around you. On a small scale, if your phone or laptop feels warm, that’s because some of the energy powering the device is being transformed into unwanted heat.

Where does this wasted heat come from?

  • These elementary particles of an atom move around and interact with other electrons and atoms.
  • Because they have an electric charge, as they move through a material — like metals, which can easily conduct electricity — they scatter off other atoms and generate heat.

Understanding Superconductivity

  • A superconductor is a material, such as a pure metal like aluminium or lead, that when cooled to ultra-low temperatures allows electricity to move through it with absolutely zero resistance.
  • Kamerlingh Onnes was the first scientist who figured out exactly how superconductor works in 1911.
  • Simply put, superconductivity occurs when two electrons bind together at low temperatures.
  • They form the building block of superconductors, the Cooper pair.
  • This holds true even for a potential superconductor like lead when it is above a certain temperature.

What are Superconductors?

  • Superconductors are materials that address this problem by allowing energy to flow efficiently through them without generating unwanted heat.
  • They have great potential and many cost-effective applications.
  • They operate magnetically levitated trains, generate magnetic fields for MRI machines and recently have been used to build quantum computers, though a fully operating one does not yet exist.

Issues with superconductors

  • They have an essential problem when it comes to other practical applications: They operate at ultra-low temperatures.
  • There are no room-temperature superconductors. That “room-temperature” part is what scientists have been working on for more than a century.
  • The amount of energy needed to cool a material down to its superconducting state is too expensive for daily applications.

Future scope

  • In a dramatic turn of events, a new kind of superconductor material was discovered in 1987 at IBM in Zurich, Switzerland.
  • The material was a kind of ceramic. These new ceramic superconductors were made of copper and oxygen mixed with other elements such as lanthanum, barium and bismuth.
  • They contradicted everything physicists thought they knew about making superconductors.
  • Since then, curiosity regarding the superconductors has been ever increasing.
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