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Superconductivity is a phenomenon in which certain materials, called superconductors, exhibit the remarkable property of zero electrical resistance when cooled below a certain temperature. The temperature at which this phenomenon is observed is called critical temperature. It means that when a superconductor is subjected to an electric current below its critical temperature, the current can flow indefinitely without losing energy due to resistance.

In addition to this defining characteristic of zero electrical resistance, superconductors also display perfect diamagnetism, meaning they completely expel any magnetic fields from their interior. In this context, defining a critical magnetic field is essential. The critical magnetic field represents the limit to which a superconductor can tolerate an applied magnetic field while maintaining its unique properties of zero resistance and perfect diamagnetism.


The discovery of superconductivity in 1911 by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes was a groundbreaking development in condensed matter physics.

Types of Superconductors

There are two main types of superconductors: Type I and Type II.

1. Type I superconductors are characterized by a sharp transition from the normal state to the superconducting state at a specific critical temperature. They have a low critical magnetic field, meaning they can only maintain superconductivity in relatively weak magnetic fields. Examples of Type I superconductors include mercury, aluminum, and lead.

2. Type II superconductors gradually transit to the superconducting state and withstand much stronger magnetic fields. They have two critical magnetic fields – a lower critical field and an upper critical field. The material is a perfect superconductor below the lower critical field while it reverts to the normal state above the upper critical field. Type II superconductors, such as niobium and niobium-titanium alloys, are more commonly used in practical applications due to their ability to maintain superconductivity in stronger magnetic fields.

Theories of Superconductivity

There are primarily two main theories of superconductivity:

1. BCS Theory (Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer Theory): Proposed in 1957 by John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and Robert Schrieffer, the BCS theory describes superconductivity as a result of electron pairing due to interactions with lattice vibrations (phonons) in the material. According to BCS theory, electrons form pairs known as Cooper pairs at low temperatures, which collectively condense into a quantum state with zero electrical resistance.

2. Ginzburg-Landau Theory: Developed independently by Vitaly Ginzburg and Lev Landau in 1950, this theory provides a phenomenological description of superconductivity based on the macroscopic wave function, known as the order parameter. The Ginzburg-Landau theory describes the behavior of superconductors near the critical temperature and predicts the existence of a second-order phase transition.

Superconductivity is responsible for a material’s unique properties, such as expelling magnetic fields. This phenomenon is known as the Meissner effect.

Meissner Effect in Superconductivity

Meissner effect is a fundamental phenomenon observed in superconducting materials, demonstrating their perfect diamagnetism. When a superconductor is placed in an external magnetic field, the magnetic field is expelled from the interior of the superconductor, a process known as flux exclusion. The Meissner Effect arises due to the formation of persistent currents within the superconductor, which generate a magnetic field that exactly cancels out the applied external field.

Applications of Superconductivity

Superconductors are important because they have many practical applications, including:

  1. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Superconducting magnets, capable of generating extremely powerful and stable magnetic fields, are the backbone of MRI technology. They allow doctors to capture detailed images of the human body without ionizing radiation.
  2. Magnetic Levitation (Maglev) Trains: High-speed maglev trains utilize superconducting magnets to levitate the train cars above the track, enabling frictionless, energy-efficient transportation at speeds exceeding 600 km/h. This technology is already in use in several countries, showcasing the practical benefits of superconductivity.
  3. Particle Accelerators: Superconducting magnets guide and focus particle beams over long distances in particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
  4. Superconducting Quantum Computing: Superconductors also play a crucial role in developing quantum computers. The ability of superconducting materials to carry electricity without resistance makes them ideal for the delicate quantum circuits required in these next-generation computing devices, which promise to revolutionize fields like cryptography, materials science, and drug discovery.

Article was last reviewed on Thursday, May 2, 2024

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