A Princeton-led research
team has revealed surprising information about how electron behavior influences
the conduction of electricity in a class of high-temperature superconductors.
An increased understanding of this mechanism could one day transform a number
of technologies, including the transmission of electrical power.
A bonding structure of copper and oxygen atoms on a plane within the cuprate (Image courtesy of Yazdani Laboratory)
The pairing of electrons, which normally repel one another, is a known prerequisite
for superconductivity – the ability of certain materials to conduct electricity
with no resistance.
In 1986, scientists discovered high-temperature ceramic superconductors, often
called cuprates for the copper-oxide layers they contain. These ceramics exhibit
superconductivity at practically applicable temperatures, around 165 Kelvin
(-162 F, -108 C), which can be reached with liquid nitrogen. Since then, scientists
have struggled to understand this phenomenon, often invoking explanations used
for more than 50 years to explain the behavior of elements, such as lead, that
behave as superconductors at temperatures near absolute zero. A common conception
is that stronger electron pairing enables superconductivity to occur at higher
But results published by the team in the June 26 issue of the journal Science
demonstrate that the strength of electron pairing alone does not control the
temperature at which these materials behave as superconductors. In cuprates,
the range of angles over which the electrons are able to exhibit superconducting
pairing also is critical. The optimal superconductivity occurs when electrons
are able to pair effectively over the widest range of angles.
To picture this, imagine electrons hopping around on a square lattice of atoms
that are chemically bonded together. At each instant, an electron on each atomic
site can pair up with another electron at a nearby site. These pairs can form
at a variety of different angles relative to the chemical bonds that hold the
atomic lattice together.
"These materials and their exotic superconductivity force us to constantly
re-examine long held views on the connection between electron pairing and superconductivity,"
said Ali Yazdani, a Princeton professor of physics and member of the research
The scientists worked with cuprates containing layers of copper-oxide organized
in a lattice structure with atoms of other elements, including bismuth, strontium
and calcium. Oddly, these materials usually behave as insulators, meaning they
do not transmit electricity at all, but they can be made to behave as conductors
by changing the number of electrons they contain. Chemical substitution of certain
elements for others, a process called "doping", is commonly used to
alter the number of electrons in the material and to achieve a variety of different
"transition temperatures" to superconductivity, at which point the
materials are able to conduct electricity with no resistance. With increased
doping, the transition temperature in cuprates is known to go up until a certain
"optimal doping level" is reached. Additional doping after this point
causes the transition temperature to decrease. Scientists are eager to find
superconductors with the highest transition temperatures in hopes of one day
discovering materials that transmit electricity with no resistance at room temperature.
The underlying reason for this peak in transition temperature has been just
as puzzling as the mechanism of superconductivity in these compounds. It is
often thought that highest transition temperature is simply associated with
the strongest pairing of electrons.
Using specialized scanning tunneling microscopes, the team of scientists measured
the strength of electron pairing in samples with different levels of doping.
As expected, they found that doping beyond a certain level weakened the strength
of electron pairing and reduced the transition temperature of the samples.
They were shocked to find, however, that the strength of electron pairing was
equal in underdoped samples with lower transition temperatures and the optimally
doped sample with the highest transition temperature.
"This was a big surprise," Yazdani said. "It forced us to reconsider
what is controlling the transition temperature beyond the usual strength of
Looking for an explanation, the scientists developed a new technique that allowed
them to investigate the angles over which the electrons showed superconducting
pairing in the different samples.
The team discovered that the transition temperature seemed to be controlled
by the range of angles over which superconducting pairing occurred. Those superconductors
with the highest transition temperatures demonstrated strong electron pairing
over the widest range of angles.
In the superconductors with lower transition temperatures, electron pairs were
still present, but the range of angles over which these electron pairs were
effective for superconductivity was observed to shrink.
In the future, the team intends to investigate the details of this pairing
mechanism more fully in an attempt to determine what makes electron pairs ineffective
for superconductivity at certain angles in some samples. Their ultimate goal
is to apply this new understanding to the design of superconductors with even
higher transition temperatures than are currently known.
These results build on the team's experiments over the past several years,
which have searched for the fundamental force "gluing" electrons into
pairs and demonstrated that electron pairing can even be present at temperatures
higher than when samples exhibit zero resistance. Their research is made possible
by powerful scanning tunneling microscopes built by the team, which allow detailed
measurements of material properties with extraordinary precision.
The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science
Foundation. In addition to Yazdani, Princeton scientists on the team included
graduate students Aakash Pushp and Colin Parker, former postdoctoral research
fellow Abhay Pasupathy, now at Columbia University, and former graduate student
Kenjiro Gomes, now at Stanford University. The team also included Shimpei Ono
of the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry in Tokyo, and Jinsheng
Wen, Zhijun Xu and Genda Gu of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.