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Armed with just the right atomic arrangements, superconductors allow electricity to flow without loss and radically enhance energy generation, delivery, and storage. Scientists tweak these superconductor recipes by swapping out elements or manipulating the valence electrons in an atom's outermost orbital shell to strike the perfect conductive balance. Most high-temperature superconductors contain atoms with only one orbital impacting performance—but what about mixing those elements with more complex configurations?

Now, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory have combined atoms with multiple orbitals and precisely pinned down their electron distributions. Using advanced electron diffraction techniques, the scientists discovered that orbital fluctuations in iron-based compounds induce strongly coupled polarizations that can enhance electron pairing—the essential mechanism behind superconductivity. The study, set to publish soon in the journal Physical Review Letters, provides a breakthrough method for exploring and improving superconductivity in a wide range of new materials.

"For the first time, we obtained direct experimental evidence of the subtle changes in electron orbitals by comparing an unaltered, non-superconducting material with its doped, superconducting twin," said Brookhaven Lab physicist and project leader Yimei Zhu.

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