A Brief History of Superconductors

The history of super conductors is littered with immense achievements, Nobel Prizes and luck; starting with its discovery. This was, in fact, lucky in itself. Heike Onnes was working in the cryogenics of mercury when he noticed its resistance disappeared when it was cooled with the newly available liquid helium. This was in 1911 and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1913. While theoretical physicists tried to explain how superconductivity happened more and more materials were found to superconduct at increasing temperatures. Twenty years later in 1933 the Meissner effect was discovered and two years later it was explained by the London brothers.

However it was another twenty years before the theories of superconductivity were finalised and agreed on with the BCS theory in 1957. This theory was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1972. This theory however predicted that superconductivity was capped at temperature of 30K. However in 1986 the first of the type II, high temperature superconductors was discovered to superconduct at 35K. Bednorz and Muller were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics the next year (1987), which shows how important of a discovery it was considered, seeing as normally Nobel Prizes are not awarded until years after the discovery is made.

The most recent Nobel Prize for physics awarded for Superconductivity was in 2003 to Anthony Legget, for his work on helium-4 superfluids and to Ginzburg and Abrikosov for proving the Ginzburg-Landau theory to be correct. (Landau had died in 1968).

The modern day use of superconductors is mainly for its magnetic properties. They are used in NMR machines where a huge magnetic field is needed, only a superconductor could provide an electromagnet with enough power. They are also used in the Japanese Maglev 'Bullet' trains. And recently they have found use in SQUID's (superconducting quantum interference devices), which are highly sensitive magnetometers. It is still the goal of researchers in the field to find and produce a room temperature superconductor, one that could be used in everyday items without the need for coolants. The implications of these would be massive, huge energy savings could be made since no power would be lost as resistance.