Superconductivity is a set of physical properties observed in certain materials where electrical resistance vanishes and magnetic flux fields are expelled from the material. Any material exhibiting these properties is a superconductor.
Unlike an ordinary metallic conductor, whose resistance decreases gradually as its temperature is lowered even down to near absolute zero, a superconductor has a characteristic critical temperature below which the resistance drops abruptly to zero.
An electric current through a loop of superconducting wire can persist indefinitely with no power source.
The superconductivity phenomenon was discovered in 1911 by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. Like ferromagnetism and atomic spectral lines, superconductivity is a phenomenon which can only be explained by quantum mechanics.
It is characterized by the Meissner effect, the complete ejection of magnetic field lines from the interior of the superconductor during its transitions into the superconducting state.
The occurrence of the Meissner effect indicates that superconductivity cannot be understood simply as the idealization of perfect conductivity in classical physics.
In 1986, it was discovered that some cuprate-perovskite ceramic materials have a critical temperature above 90 K (−183 °C).
Such a high transition temperature is theoretically impossible for a conventional superconductor, leading the materials to be termed high-temperature superconductors. The cheaply available coolant liquid nitrogen boils at 77 K, and thus the existence of superconductivity at higher temperatures than this facilitates many experiments and applications that are less practical at lower temperatures.
There are many criteria by which superconductors are classified.
The most common are:
• Response to a magnetic field
• By theory of operation
• By critical temperature
• By material
Several physical properties of superconductors vary from material to material, such as the critical temperature, the value of the superconducting gap, the critical magnetic field, and the critical current density at which superconductivity is destroyed. On the other hand, there is a class of properties that are independent of the underlying material.
The Meissner effect, the quantization of the magnetic flux or permanent currents, i.e. the state of zero resistance are the most important examples. The existence of these “universal” properties is rooted in the nature of the broken symmetry of the superconductor and the emergence of off-diagonal long range order.
Superconductivity is a thermodynamic phase, and thus possesses certain distinguishing properties which are largely independent of microscopic details.
Promising future applications include high-performance smart grid, electric power transmission, transformers, power storage devices, electric motors, magnetic levitation devices, fault current limiters, enhancing spintronic devices with superconducting materials, and superconducting magnetic refrigeration.
However, superconductivity is sensitive to moving magnetic fields, so applications that use alternating current (e.g. transformers) will be more difficult to develop than those that rely upon direct current.
Compared to traditional power lines, superconducting transmission lines are more efficient and require only a fraction of the space, which would not only lead to a better environmental performance but could also improve public acceptance for expansion of the electric grid.