From portable MRI scanners to superconducting power lines
Université de Sherbrooke-led research team discovers the nature of superconductors
Montréal, le 31 mai 2007 – In a paper published today in the magazine Nature, a team of researchers from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), led by Université de Sherbrooke Professor Louis Taillefer, have laid to rest a 20-year-old mystery about the nature of an exotic class of materials known as high-temperature superconductors.
These materials, which conduct electricity with no resistance, hold enormous technological promise for power transmission, levitating trains, magnetic medical imaging, wireless communications, quantum computing, and many more related applications. In the past, scientists have been held back from harnessing the full power of these materials, because of unanswered fundamental questions, such as whether these materials are metals or insulators.
In experiments carried out at the National Pulsed Magnetic Field Laboratory in Toulouse, France, using superconducting crystals created by CIFAR researchers at the University of British Columbia, Professor Taillefer's team observed a phenomenon called “quantum oscillations” in a high-temperature superconductor, which provide unambiguous evidence that these materials are metals.
“The results are crystal clear,” said Professor Taillefer. “High-temperature superconductors were discovered in 1987, and only now do we finally have concrete knowledge about their deep nature. This discovery gives both theorists and experimentalists something real to work with.”
Superconductors are already used in MRI scanners, trains, power lines and in other areas, but their application is severely limited. Despite their name, high-temperature superconductors need to be cooled to more than 100 degrees below zero C in order to function. Scientists have been working to raise the upper temperature limit, but have been hampered by a lack of knowledge about the nature of the materials themselves.
“This historic discovery is a quintessential CIFAR story,” said Dr. Chaviva M. Hošek, President and CEO of CIFAR. “We have invested twenty years in superconductivity research and fostered collaboration among the leading thinkers in the field across Canada and around the world. It was a risk, but now we see the payoff.”
“Professor Louis Taillefer's distinctive research unravels the exciting new field of superconductivity,” adds Professor Bruno-Marie Béchard, Rector of the Université de Sherbrooke. “Through its innovation and leadership in the field, the Université de Sherbrooke attracts world-recognized experts, such as Louis Taillefer, who team with other leading academics and researchers to literally change the course of mankind with outstanding advances.”
This discovery will help scientists find ways to raise the upper temperature limit, with the ultimate goal of creating room temperature superconductors. If these materials no longer need to be supercooled, it would mean, for instance, that MRI's would shrink from the size of a garden shed to the dimensions of a laptop. Superconducting power lines would make the transmission of electricity much more efficient. And if researchers can understand electron behaviour in superconductors the way they already understand it in semiconductors, the implication for the next generation of computers is unlimited.
Louis Taillefer: at the heart of matter
Professor and physician Louis Taillefer holds the Canada Research Chair in Quantum Materials at the Université de Sherbrooke, and was named Scientist of the Year by Radio-Canada in 2002, Steacie Fellow by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and Fellow of the American Physical Society. His research work is supported in part by NSERC and by the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies.
Created in 1982, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research recruits top Canadian and international researchers to answer complex, multidisciplinary questions that have major impact on public policy, technology, and knowledge creation. Quantum Materials is one of the Institute's 12 current research programs.
A word about the Université de Sherbrooke
Ranked best university or best French-speaking university in all three major university rankings in Canada, Université de Sherbrooke is also the Canadian leader for royalties from research. Internationally recognized for its outstanding tradition of innovation, Université de Sherbrooke is also renowned for the quality of its forward-looking teaching approaches to the more than 35000 students who are enrolled in its numerous undergraduate and graduate programs offered by the nine faculties on its six campuses.
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Patchen BarssCaroline Dubois
Canadian Institute for Advanced Research
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Media Relations Officer
Université de Sherbrooke
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819 560-2373 cellular Caroline.Dubois4@USherbrooke.ca