This piece gives an insight into one of the most significant advancements in the field of nanotechnology, Superconductors, their working principles, advantages, and prospects in the field of science.
The Fundamental Forces of Nature
What you are going to read might sound like a part out of an Avatar: The Last Airbender Opening Sequence, where Katara introduces us to the Four Elements; Water, Earth, Fire, Air, and their unceasing struggle for 61 episodes straight. Similarly, in nature, there are distinct forces that shape our everyday life and interactions with the Cosmos. They are Gravitation, Electromagnetism, Strong Forces, and Weak Forces. These forces are the most basic and distinct principles that are on a universal scale that you cannot produce without an external power source.
In the first chapter, Quarks, and Quasars of his book, Stephen Hawking’s Universe1, John Boslough defines these fundamental forces in the following way; “Gravity controls the biggest objects – you, me and everything in the universe. The other three that scientists have uncovered operate at the subatomic level: the strong nuclear force that holds the nucleus of an atom together; electromagnetism that keeps electrons in place around the nucleus and the weak nuclear force that causes radioactive decay in certain atoms, like Uranium.”
1 Boslough, John. Stephen Hawking’s Universe: An Introduction to the most remarkable scientist of our time. Avon Books, 1989.
Before reading this, I believed that Gravitation was the supreme force of nature, dominating you, me, and the stars above us. However, I failed to notice that the nucleus of an atom beholds such great strength, as it consists of only protons and neutrons, which by theory, are supposed to ‘repel’ because they are ‘like charges.’ In simpler words, it is like trying to make the same poles of a significantly strong magnet attract each other without even touching them. All of this is happening at a subatomic level in every atom in the universe. Similarly, I didn’t realize the painstakingly difficult task of keeping an electron around the nucleus of an atom. Nevertheless, I was unaware that the movement of such an insignificantly small particle like an electron could spark such a significant revolution
The Electromagnetic Revolution
Electromagnetism, as described above, is one of the Four Fundamental Forces of Nature. It refers to the study of charges and force fields. Electromagnetism is responsible for keeping the electron around the nucleus of an atom. This makes ordinary matter seem solid and real. The word ‘electromagnetism’ comes from the union of two words, ‘electricity’ and ‘magnetism.’ It was long thought that these two phenomena were different, but we know these two effects as one today, mainly because of these two reasons;
- Change in an electric field results in a magnetic field
- Change in a magnetic field results in an electric field
These common reasons can be justified in the following ways; Wrapping a wire around an iron core and passing a current through it can create a magnetic field that makes the iron core act as a magnet. Similarly, oscillating a magnet around a wire or vice versa can induce a potential difference in the wire. Thus, they are interchangeable and can be regarded as a unified phenomenon. It is essential to know these properties before we talk about superconductors.
Following these principles and many more, scientists have, with great endurance, managed to push the Electromagnetic Revolution to greater limits. With electricity lines, dynamos, electronics, and the many wonders electromagnetism has blessed us with, human civilization has transformed from setting sparks from flint to illuminating sprawling cities with our mastery over this force. We have been able to supply electricity to 89.57% of the world population . Satellites above us have captured significant views of our night skies that seem to look like a canvas of absorbing colors that scatter through the darkness. We have managed to study diseases and activities of the brain with MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which uses a magnetic field to generate an image of our mind with such accuracy that it has revolutionized neuroscience. Similarly, a wave of electromagnetic revolution can be witnessed as you are reading this text, in a handheld telecommunication device (most probably) which we call a smartphone these days. Electromagnetism has left its imprints all across the globe and continues to revolutionize technology.
Stumbling blocks in Electromagnetism:
Despite the topic of Electromagnetism being very amusing and of great advantage to us Earthlings, there are a few stumbling blocks in the path to achieving ultimate superiority over this force. There is a great disadvantage that you may be unaware of. Why is an MRI Scanner astonishingly expensive (around $150,000 to 3 million dollars)? Why is it so inconveniently large and bulky? If we could miniaturize a room-sized computer to the size of your pocket, Why can we not do the same to MRI Scanners? It is the same issue for a hoard of devices and technology related with electromagnetism.
An MRI Scanner produces an image by producing an extremely strong and large magnetic field. As you step into this beautiful machine, it allows your body to act like a compass needle. It aligns all the nuclei in your body and by sending a pulse of radio energy to your brain, the dealignment of your nuclei happens, which again produces a secondary wave of radio energy. A computer analyses these echoes and produces a beautiful image of your brain. The main problem here is that you need to produce a significantly large magnetic field that allows the dealignment and alignment of your nuclei. To create such a field, tons of wire and electronic components are required. All because of one downside. Resistance.
The greater the Resistance of any conductive material is, the harder it is to create a stronger magnetic field. A conductive material consists of metal ions and a number of other disturbances. These atomic debris prevent the flow of an electric current as electrons constantly collide with them. The key to reducing the size of any device that works on such principles is to simply reduce the resistance of that particular material. The only catch is that it is not that simple.
Now that we have broken down these processes and discussed their repercussions, there might be a way out to effectively battle this problem. Many people die each year because they cannot simply afford an MRI Scan. It has become increasingly difficult for health institutions to maintain, repair, and buy these gargantuan machines. As we know it, we can miniaturize these colossal machines by decreasing resistance. A variety of materials like graphene, which is a one atom thick version of graphite, is known to be ten times more efficient than copper wires. Similarly, a new hot topic in the field of nanotechnology and electronics is Superconductors. The reason they are so ‘super’ is that they break all conventional barriers in science.
A superconductor is a conductive material that has completely no resistance. This means that this particular material can pass electricity with the most minute amount of loss. Superconductors have no limit. Over 30% of electricity is lost from transmission through power lines, which is another effect of resistance. Resistance, once it is modified to such an insanely low point, can spark a revolution of energy and electronics. Our interaction with electromagnetism would be effortless once this technology will become predominant.
The effect of superconductivity was first seen on mercury by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics shortly after this discovery in 1913 because he used an ingenious way to cool helium to liquid form for this experiment. Liquid Helium has become instrumental nowadays to carry out such cold experiments.
Speaking of cold, Superconductors, however, function only under certain conditions. They tend to lose all of their resistance at certain temperatures only. These temperatures are known as the critical temperatures (Tc) of that particular material. An example can include mercury, which loses all of its resistance at 4.2 Kelvins above Absolute Zero. For comparison, Absolute Zero is – 237.15oC and Liquid Nitrogen boils at – 196oC. Thus, it is theoretically impossible to use frozen mercury as a replacement to copper wires as a widespread alternative as the effects are very momentary and inconvenient for daily use. Over the years, it has become a demanding task for scientists to discover materials that have higher Critical Temperatures2.
2 Kaku, Michio. The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. Penguin Books, 2014.
A New Breakthrough
Science and Technology, being the evergreen and dynamic industry it is, never fails to astonish me. The reason that scientists are looking out for substances with higher critical temperatures is that we want such substances to function at room temperature, not cold ones. As I sought to write this blog, inspired by Prof. Kaku’s books, where he foretold us back when he wrote it in 2011, that new materials would be discovered that could have even higher Critical Temperatures, I realized that, on the 15th of October, 20203, a new substance was discovered that could establish a new era of energy for us, which was quite a shock to me, considering that I was so intrigued by the beauty of these substances.
This particular material was carbonaceous sulfur hydride (CH8S), having a Critical Temperature of 15oC. Which is a groundbreaking discovery since this could revolutionize electromagnetism. From the discovery of superconductive mercury in 1911 to this day, the discovery of a room-temperature superconductor is an ultimate achievement in the field of science. However, this state of superconductivity is only possible at a pressure of 267 billion pascals. For comparison, a typical tire has pressures of 193-234 kPa (kilopascals). Therefore, superconductors are not in a usable state with present technology. But, what if it was?
3 Rincon, Paul. “Superconductors: Material Raises Hope of Energy Revolution.” BBC, 2020, www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54551527.
What this could mean for Us
Energy: Electricity is a necessity for the entirety of the Earth. The discovery of a room temperature superconductor can massively impact the entire industry. 30% of energy is lost through transmission all the time. Although this does not sound like a big deal, it is a huge waste of money. Superconductors can bring this number down to zero someday. This means that there will be a complete transmission of electricity efficiently delivered to every household. Intercontinental transfer and transactions of energy would be simplified and more widespread than it is today. This would make a new era of electromagnetism possible.
Transportation: Furthermore, technology could be significantly affected. With superconductors, we could manufacture magnetic trains (commonly known as Maglevs) with higher efficiency. These Maglev Trains work on the principle of repulsion of a magnetic field to gently float above a track of magnets and create extremely high speeds. Maglev trains could harbor a new age of transportation to us. Since there is no contact between the train and the track, friction is completely zero. Therefore, it enables the train to achieve such high speeds along with an insignificant carbon footprint.
Medicine: A brief problem we discussed above was of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and how inconveniently large and expensive these machines were. Superconductors can conduct electricity with no resistance. Therefore a large flow of electrons can be made possible. The larger the current, the greater will be the magnetic field. Thus, we could create an extremely large magnetic field with small pieces of these superconductors. Therefore, there would be no need for creating a room-large magnetic coil to map our brain. Someday, we could conduct a complete MRI Scan that would be cheap and free of a bulky machine, that in turn, would fit in our pockets.
Telekinesis: A completely new field could be Telekinesis. We can simply understand this word by joining two words Tele, which refers to transfer over long distances as we see in telephone, television, and telecommunications, and Kinetic, which simply refers to motion. Therefore, Telekinesis is the process of influencing physical systems without even interacting with them . We can move objects here and there with a single thought. In other words, this is just some type of Doctor Strange and Scarlett Witch- level superpower. Telekinesis is a whole new interesting topic and it deserves a completely separate article for itself. Throughout human history, we have learned to imagine characters with psychic god-like powers. The day we acquire mastery over this skill, we would conquer our wildest dreams.
Kaku, Michio. Physics of the Future: The Inventions That Will Transform Our Lives. Penguin Books, 2011
Telekinesis is not a simple task for scientists. Superconductors could allow us to make super magnets, which can create larger magnetic fields with powerful field strengths. By altering and synchronizing a controlled movement of magnetic fields, we can harness the ability to lift and move certain objects (magnetic substances since they can only behave differently in a magnetic field). Therefore, we could sit at a corner of our room and say “Accio ” as a spoon would come flying into your hands.
For implementing this theory, scientists would need a deeper understanding of the brain. The neurological patterns of our brain, stimuli, responses, and the behavior of neurons in the brain need massive research. We can use Electroencephalogram (EEG) Electrodes, which detect electric impulses in the brain, to study our thoughts, and implement real-time decisions. Then, we could send our thoughts to the super magnets, which in turn when programmed in a particular way to respond to certain impulses, can coordinate to synchronize the magnetic fields to carry out the required tasks. Thus, we can effortlessly control our surroundings with no physical effort at all
Particle Accelerators: Particle Accelerators, informally known as atom smashers are, as their name suggests, a piece of technology that accelerates particles. The word particle suggests atoms, in this case. As you may have read in Dan Brown’s beautiful novel, Angels and Demons, these accelerators propel atoms to extremely high speeds, to smash them at a target or with each other. This can dismantle the complete structure of the atom and can either change the atomic structure or divide the atoms in order to find new subatomic particles. This can also create antimatter, the opposite of matter. This kind of matter has a negative proton known as an antiproton and a positive electron known as a positron. Antimatter, when in contact with matter, cancels each other out and produces a large amount of energy. Particle accelerators can also be used to study subatomic particles like Quarks and the Higgs Boson.
Particle Accelerators use the same principles of MRIs, except, at a larger scale and not meant for humans. There will be a gigantic collision channel, which is either circular or straight, that includes miles and miles of wire formed into coils that create one of the largest possible magnetic fields on planet Earth. The magnetic field is so strong that it can propel a few atoms at near light speed, which causes the above-mentioned disintegration. Superconductors can be massive in the sector of particle physics and its research. The prevalence of room temperature superconductors could mean two things
- Higher Efficiency in creating Magnetic Fields, decrease in size (The Large Hadron Hadron Collider is 27 km long)
- Reduce in cost (The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland cost $4.75 Billion alone)
This could be a massive step forward as particle physics helps us understand the quantum world at a greater depth. Despite the drawbacks of superconductors, the industry has made immense strides in the last 109 years of its discovery. We cannot expect superconductors to make an impact on our lives within the midcentury. However, with the discovery of more room- temperature and pressure superconductors, this material can revolutionize the way we see the world. For now, let us all stick to Marvel Comics and movies because we have a winding road to travel.
1 Hawking, Stephen W. The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. Jaico Books, 2008.
2 Kaku, Michio. Physics of the Future: The Inventions That Will Transform Our Lives. Penguin Books, 2011.
3 Kaku, Michio. The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. Penguin Books, 2014.
4 Boslough, John. Stephen Hawking’s Universe: An Introduction to the most remarkable scientist of our time. Avon Books, 1989
Rincon, Paul. “Superconductors: Material Raises Hope of Energy Revolution.” BBC, 2020, www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54551527.
Conover, Emily. “The First Room-Temperature Superconductor Has Finally Been Found.” Science News, 2020, www.sciencenews.org/article/physics-first-room-temperature-superconductor-discovery.