Skip to main content

Superconductor breakthrough

As broadcast equipment becomes more sophisticated, especially in the digital domains, the speed at which information is transferred, processed, etc., through the equipment itself, becomes a very important factor. With computer processors that drive broadcast equipment today operating in the Gigahertz range, what good does it do if the remainder of the infrastructure works considerably slower?

Superconductors will go a long way in resolving this issue. Earlier this year, researchers led by Dr. Jun Akimitsu of Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo achieved a significant milestone when they announced that magnesium boride, a readily available metal compound known since the 1950s, has unexpectedly turned into the latest breakthrough in superconductors technology.

Magnesium boride is commonly used in some chemical reactions, but no one had ever tested its worth as a superconductor at low temperatures, where it demonstrates properties of moving electrons with virtually no resistance.

After hearing about Dr. Akimitsu's discovery and working with the substance, Dr. Paul C. Canfield, a professor of physics at Iowa State University and a researcher at Ames Laboratory said: “It's a fantastic discovery! We've been able to do a lot of neat stuff with it in the past month.”

The material is very light and, from reports, is easier to work with as compared with the more complex superconducting materials such as the copper oxides, a so-called high-temperature superconductor. The more complex superconducting materials work at higher temperatures, but magnesium boride is comparatively inexpensive, selling for about $175 per 100-gram bottle.

Dr. Canfield said he and his colleagues at Iowa State and Ames Laboratory have worked extensively investigating magnesium boride and have already fashioned superconducting wires by exposing fibers of boron to magnesium vapors. At present, though, the wires are short; only couple of inches long, and brittle. Dr. Canfield said: “It's not something you can curl around your finger.”

But then, who'd want to curl it around their finger? Magnesium boride, as a superconductor, is such only at temperatures up to minus 389 degrees, or about 29 degrees higher than any other simple metallic compound. Although not the solution, it is being hailed as a significant step in that direction, so stay tuned.

Send questions and comments to: