Scientists map high-temp superconductivity in 3D for the first time

High-temperature superconductivity represents a potential breakthrough across multiple fields of technology, from MRIs to levitating trains, hoverboards and computing. Scientists at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have discovered the first 3D model of the elements involved in high-temperature superconductivity, uncovered using powerful magnetic pulses and "some of the brightest X-rays on the planet," according to a press release. Superconductivity is a quantum mechanical phenomenon that occurs in certain materials when they're cooled to extreme temperatures, at which point they conduct zero electrical resistance and expel their magnetic fields. If humans can harness superconductivity at room temperature, the technology could take off in a massive way (Did someone say singularity?).

"This was totally unexpected and also very exciting," SLAC staff scientist and experiment leader Jun-Sik Lee says in a press release. "This experiment has identified a new ingredient to consider in this field of study. Nobody had seen this 3D picture before. This is an important step in understanding the physics of high-temperature superconductors."

Scientists found the 3D model in the superconducting material YBCO (yttrium barium copper oxide). It's a new kind of charge density wave that doesn't oscillate like a light or sound wave -- researchers have been studying a 2D model of this wave since 2012, but the 3D version appears "stronger" and closely connected to the material's superconductivity. Stanford University physics professor Steven Kivelson contributed to the experiment and said, "There is nothing vague about this. You can now make a definitive statement: In this material a new phase exists."

The 3D model opens the door for future, more in-depth experiments of high-temperature superconductivity, researchers say.

From left, Wei-Sheng Lee, Simon Gerber, Jun-Sik Lee, Hoyoung Jang, Hiroyuki Nojiri, Hiromasa Yasumura and Diling Zhu

[Image credits: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory]