Superconductivity: From Feshbach to Fermi

(This post is continued from this one.)

After a bit of searching on Wikipedia, I found that the fundamental philosophical underpinnings of superconductivity were to be found in a statistical concept called the Feshbach resonance. If I had to teach superconductivity to those who only knew of the phenomenon superfluously, that’s where I’d begin. So.

Imagine a group of students who have gathered in a room to study together for a paper the next day. Usually, there is that one guy among them who will be hell-bent on gossiping more than studying, affecting the performance of the rest of the group. In fact, given sufficient time, the entire group’s interest will gradually shift in the direction of the gossip and away from its syllabus. The way to get the entire group back on track is to introduce a Feshbach resonance: cut the bond between the group’s interest and the entity causing the disruption. If done properly, the group will turn coherent in its interest and to focusing on studying for the paper.

In multi-body systems, such as a conductor harboring electrons, the presence of a Feshbach resonance renders an internal degree of freedom independent of those coordinates “along” which dissociation is most like to occur. And in a superconductor, a Feshbach resonance results in each electron pairing up with another (i.e., electron-vibrations are quelled by eliminating thermal excitation) owing to both being influenced by an attractive potential that arises out of the electron’s interaction with the vibrating lattice.

Feshbach resonance & BCS theory

For particulate considerations, the lattice-vibrations are quantized in the form of hypothetical particles called phonons. As for why the Feshbach resonance must occur the way it does in a superconductor: that is the conclusion, rather implication, of the BCS theory formulated in 1957 by John Bardeen, Leon Neil Cooper, and John Robert Schrieffer.

(Arrows describe the direction of forces acting on each entity) When a nucleus, N, pulls electrons, e, toward itself, it may be said that the two electrons are pulled toward a common target by a common force. Therefore, the electrons’ engagement with each other is influenced by N. The energy of N, in turn, is quantified as a phonon (p), and the electrons are said to interact through the phonons.

The BCS theory essentially treats electrons like rebellious, teenage kids (I must be getting old). As negatively charged electrons pass through the crystal lattice, they draw the positively charged nuclei toward themselves, creating an increase in the positive charge density in their vicinity that attracts more electrons in turn. The resulting electrostatic pull is stronger near nuclei and very weak at larger distances. The BCS theory states that two electrons that would otherwise repel each other will pair up in the face of such a unifying electrostatic potential, howsoever weak it is.

This is something like rebellious teens who, in the face of a common enemy, will unite with each other no matter what the differences between them earlier were.

Since electrons are fermions, they bow down to Pauli’s exclusion principle, which states that no two fermions may occupy the same quantum state. As each quantum state is defined by some specific combination of state variables called quantum numbers, at least one quantum number must differ between the two co-paired electrons.

Prof. Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958)

In the case of superconductors, this is particle spin: the electrons in the member-pair will have opposite spins. Further, once such unions have been achieved between different pairs of electrons, each pair becomes indistinguishable from the other, even in principle. Imagine: they are all electron-pairs with two opposing spins but with the same values for all other quantum numbers. Each pair, called a Cooper pair, is just the same as the next!

Bose-Einstein condensates

This unification results in the sea of electrons displaying many properties normally associated with Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs). In a BEC, the particles that attain the state of indistinguishability are bosons (particles with integer spin), not fermions (particles with half-integer spin). The phenomenon occurs at temperatures close to absolute zero and in the presence of an external confining potential, such as an electric field.

In 1995, at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, physicists cooled rubidium atoms down to 170 billionths of a degree above absolute zero. They observed that the atoms, upon such cooling, condensed into a uniform state such that their respective velocities and distribution began to display a strong correlation (shown above, L to R with decreasing temp.). In other words, the multi-body system had condensed into a homogenous form, called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), where the fluid behaved as a single, indivisible entity.

Since bosons don’t follow Pauli’s exclusion principle, a major fraction of the indistinguishable entities in the condensate may and do occupy the same quantum state. This causes quantum mechanical effects to become apparent on a macroscopic scale.

By extension, the formulation and conclusions of the BCS theory, alongside its success in supporting associated phenomena, imply that superconductivity may be a quantum phenomenon manifesting in a macroscopic scale.

Note: If even one Cooper pair is “broken”, the superconducting state will be lost as the passage of electric current will be disrupted, and the condensate will dissolve into individual electrons, which means the energy required to break one Cooper pair is the same as the energy required to break the composition of the condensate. So thermal vibrations of the crystal lattice, usually weak, become insufficient to interrupt the flow of Cooper pairs, which is the flow of electrons.

The Meissner effect in action: A magnet is levitated by a superconductor because of the expulsion of the magnetic field from within the material

The Meissner effect

In this context, the Meissner effect is simply an extrapolation of Lenz’s law but with zero electrical resistance.

Lenz’s law states that the electromotive force (EMF) because of a current in a conductor acts in a direction that always resists a change in the magnetic flux that causes the EMF. In the absence of resistance, the magnetic fields due to electric currents at the surface of a superconductor cancel all magnetic fields inside the bulk of the material, effectively pushing magnetic field lines of an external magnetic potential outward. However, the Meissner effect manifests only when the externally applied field is weaker than a certain critical threshold: if it is stronger, then the superconductor returns to its conducting state.

Now, there are a class of materials called Type II superconductors – as opposed to the Type I class described earlier – that only push some of the magnetic field outward, the rest remaining conserved inside the material in filaments while being surrounded by supercurrents. This state is called the vortex state, and its occurrence means the material can withstand much stronger magnetic fields and continue to remain superconducting while also exhibiting the hybrid Meissner effect.

Temperature & superconductivity

There are also a host of other effects that only superconductors can exhibit, including Cooper-pair tunneling, flux quantization, and the isotope effect, and it was by studying them that a strong relationship was observed between temperature and superconductivity in various forms.

(L to R) John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and John Schrieffer

In fact, Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer hit upon their eponymous theory after observing a band gap in the electronic spectra of superconductors. The electrons in any conductor can exist at specific energies, each well-defined. Electrons above a certain energy, usually in the valence band, become free to pass through the entire material instead of staying in motion around the nuclei, and are responsible for conduction.

The trio observed that upon cooling the material to closer and closer to absolute zero, there was a curious gap in the energies at which electrons could be found in the material at a particular temperature. This meant that, at that temperature, the electrons were jumping from existing at one energy to existing at some other lower energy. The observation indicated that some form of condensation was occurring. However, a BEC was ruled out because of Pauli’s exclusion principle. At the same time, a BEC-like state had to have been achieved by the electrons.

This temperature is called the transition temperature, and is the temperature below which a conductor transitions into its superconducting state, and Cooper pairs form, leading to the drop in the energy of each electron. Also, the differences in various properties of the material on either side of this threshold are also attributed to this temperature, including an important notion called the Fermi energy: it is the potential energy that any system possesses when all its thermal energy has been removed from it. This is a significant idea because it defines both the kind and amount of energy that a superconductor has to offer for an externally applied electric current.

Enrico Fermi, along with Paul Dirac, defined the Fermi-Dirac statistics that governs the behavior all identical particles that obey Pauli’s exclusion principle (i.e., fermions). Fermi level and Fermi energy are concepts named for him; however, as long as we’re discussing eponymy, Fermilab overshadows them all.

In simple terms, the density of various energy states of the electrons at the Fermi energy of a given material dictates the “breadth” of the band gap if the electron-phonon interaction energy were to be held fixed at some value: a direct proportionality. Thus, the value of the energy gap at absolute zero should be a fixed multiple of the value of the energy gap at the superconducting transition temperature (the multiplication factor was found to be 3.5 universally, irrespective of the material).

Similarly, because of the suppression of thermal excitation (because of the low temperature), the heat capacity of the material reduces drastically at low temperatures, and vanishes below the transition temperature. However, just before hitting zero at the threshold, the heat capacity balloons up to beyond its original value, and then pops. It was found that the ballooned value was always 2.5 times the material’s normal heat capacity value… again, universally, irrespective of the material!

The temperature-dependence of superconductors gains further importance with respect to applications and industrial deployment in the context of its possible occurring at higher temperatures. The low temperatures currently necessary eliminate thermal excitations, in the form of vibrations, of nuclei and almost entirely counter the possibility of electrons, or Cooper pairs, colliding into them.The low temperatures also assist in the flow of Cooper pairs as a superfluid apart from allowing for the energy of the superfluid being higher than the phononic energy of the lattice.

However, to achieve all these states in order to turn a conductor into a superconductor at a higher temperature, a more definitive theory of superconductivity is required. One that allows for the conception of superconductivity that requires only certain internal conditions to prevail while the ambient temperature soars. The 1986-discovery of high-temperature superconductors in ceramics by Bednorz and Muller was the turning point. It started to displace the BCS theory which, physicists realized, doesn’t contain the necessary mechanisms for superconductivity to manifest itself in ceramics – insulators at room temperature – at temperatures as high as 125 K.

A firmer description of superconductivity, therefore, still remains elusive. Its construction should not only pave the for one of the few phenomena that hardly appears in nature and natural processes to be fully understood, but also for its substitution against standard conductors that are responsible for lossy transmission and other such undesirable effects. After all, superconductors are the creation of humankind, and only by its hand while they ever be fully worked.