Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are decoding the mysterious mechanisms behind high-temperature superconductors that industry hopes will be used in next-generation systems for storing, distributing, and using electricity. At temperatures approaching absolute zero, many materials become superconductors, capable of carrying vast amounts of electrical current with no resistance. In such low-temperature superconductors, magnetism is a villain whose appearance shatters the fragile superconductive state. But in 1986, scientists discovered "high temperature" (HTc) superconductors capable of operating much warmer than the previous limit of 30 degrees above absolute zero.
Such materials have enabled applications as diverse as high-speed maglev trains, magnetic-resonance imagers and highly sensitive astronomical detectors. Still, no one really understands how HTc superconductivity works, although scientists have long suspected that in this case, magnetism boosts rather than suppresses the effect. The beginnings of what could be a breakthrough came in early 2008 when Japanese researchers announced discovery of a new class of iron-based HTc superconductors. In addition to being easier to shape into wires and otherwise commercialize than today's copper-oxides, such materials give scientists fresh new subjects with which to develop and test theories about HTc superconductivity's origins.
Scientists at NIST's Center for Neutron Research and a team including researchers from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Maryland, Ames Laboratory, and Iowa State University used beams of neutrons to peek into a superconductor's atomic structure. They first found iron-based superconductors to be similar to copper-oxide materials in how "doping" (adding specific elements to insulators in or around a HTc superconductor) influences their magnetic properties and superconductivity.