It’s a hot summer day. You desperately want something cold to drink, but unfortunately, your bottle of root beer has been sitting in a hot car all day. You put it into a bucket full of ice to cool it down. But it’s taking forever! How, you wonder, could you speed the process up? The same question is important for understanding how electronic devices work, and how we can make them work better by controlling the temperature of the electrons that power them. Read on to find out what a bottle of root beer in a cooler full of ice and a nanowire in a vat of liquid helium have in common!
Materials that are absolutely perfect—in other words, materials that contain no defect of any kind—are usually not very interesting. Imagine being married to a saint: you would quickly be bored out of your mind! Defects and impurities can considerably change many properties of materials in ways that allow a wide range of applications.
Superconductors are materials that permit electrical current to flow without energy loss. Their amazing properties form the basis for MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) devices and high-speed maglev trains, as well as emerging technologies such as quantum computers. At the heart of all superconductors is the bunching of electrons into pairs. Click the image to learn more about the "dancing" behavior of these electron pairs!
At ordinary temperatures and at the subatomic level, chaos is the rule. At low enough temperatures, however, electrons are constrained, forming exotic phases that exhibit long-range order, or repeating patterns.
At low temperatures, helium—the same substance that makes balloons float—becomes a special type of liquid known as a superfluid, which has zero viscosity. It's like the anti-molasses! The properties of superfluids are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. More specifically, the atoms in superfluid helium are “entangled” with each other, allowing them to share information and influence each other’s behavior in ways that are totally foreign to our everyday experience, and which Einstein famously described as "spooky action at a distance." Better still, scientists have recently discovered that the law controlling entanglement between different parts of a helium superfluid is the same as that governing the exotic behavior of black holes in outer space.
One of the oldest and most studied materials in all of physics and materials science has been shown to display magnetism when illuminated with a certain type of light.