High-temperature superconductivity

A small sample of the high-temperature superconductor BSCCO-2223.

High-temperature superconductors (abbreviated high-Tc or HTS) are materials that behave as superconductors at unusually[1] high temperatures. The first high-Tc superconductor was discovered in 1986 by IBM researchers Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Müller,[2][3] who were awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics "for their important break-through in the discovery of superconductivity in ceramic materials".[4]

Whereas "ordinary" or metallic superconductors usually have transition temperatures (temperatures below which they are superconductive) below 30 K (−243.2 °C), and must be cooled using liquid helium in order to achieve superconductivity, HTS have been observed with transition temperatures as high as 138 K (−135 °C), and can be cooled to superconductivity using liquid nitrogen.[2] Until 2008, only certain compounds of copper and oxygen (so-called "cuprates") were believed to have HTS properties, and the term high-temperature superconductor was used interchangeably with cuprate superconductor for compounds such as bismuth strontium calcium copper oxide (BSCCO) and yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO). Several iron-based compounds (the iron pnictides) are now known to be superconducting at high temperatures.[5][6][7]

In 2015, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) under extremely high pressure (around 150 gigapascals) was found to undergo superconducting transition near 203 K (-70 °C), the highest temperature superconductor known to date.[8][9][10]

For an explanation about Tc (the critical temperature for superconductivity), see Superconductivity § Superconducting phase transition and the second bullet item of BCS theory § Successes of the BCS theory.



The phenomenon of superconductivity was discovered by Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911, in metallic mercury below 4 K (−269.15 °C). Ever since, researchers have attempted to observe superconductivity at increasing temperatures[11] with the goal of finding a room-temperature superconductor.[12] In the late 1970s, superconductivity was observed in certain metal oxides at temperatures as high as 13 K (−260.1 °C), which were much higher than those for elemental metals. In 1986, J. Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Müller, working at the IBM research lab near Zurich, Switzerland were exploring a new class of ceramics for superconductivity. Bednorz encountered a barium-doped compound of lanthanum and copper oxide whose resistance dropped down to zero at a temperature around 35 K (−238.2 °C).[11] Their results were soon confirmed[13] by many groups, notably Paul Chu at the University of Houston and Shoji Tanaka at the University of Tokyo.[14]

Shortly after, P. W. Anderson, at Princeton University came up with the first theoretical description of these materials, using the resonating valence bond theory,[15] but a full understanding of these materials is still developing today. These superconductors are now known to possess a d-wave[clarification needed] pair symmetry. The first proposal that high-temperature cuprate superconductivity involves d-wave pairing was made in 1987 by Bickers, Scalapino and Scalettar,[16] followed by three subsequent theories in 1988 by Inui, Doniach, Hirschfeld and Ruckenstein,[17] using spin-fluctuation theory, and by Gros, Poilblanc, Rice and Zhang,[18] and by Kotliar and Liu identifying d-wave pairing as a natural consequence of the RVB theory.[19] The confirmation of the d-wave nature of the cuprate superconductors was made by a variety of experiments, including the direct observation of the d-wave nodes in the excitation spectrum through Angle Resolved Photoemission Spectroscopy, the observation of a half-integer flux in tunneling experiments, and indirectly from the temperature dependence of the penetration depth, specific heat and thermal conductivity.

Until 2015 the superconductor with the highest transition temperature that had been confirmed by multiple independent research groups (a prerequisite to be called a discovery, verified by peer review) was mercury barium calcium copper oxide (HgBa2Ca2Cu3O8) at around 133 K.[20]

After more than twenty years of intensive research, the origin of high-temperature superconductivity is still not clear, but it seems that instead of electron-phonon attraction mechanisms, as in conventional superconductivity, one is dealing with genuine electronic mechanisms (e.g. by antiferromagnetic correlations), and instead of conventional, purely s-wave pairing, more exotic pairing symmetries are thought to be involved (d-wave in the case of the cuprates; primarily extended s-wave, but occasionally d-wave, in the case of the iron-based superconductors). In 2014, evidence showing that fractional particles can happen in quasi two-dimensional magnetic materials, was found by EPFL scientists[21] lending support for Anderson's theory of high-temperature superconductivity.[22]

Crystal structures of high-temperature ceramic superconductorsEdit

The structure of high-Tc copper oxide or cuprate superconductors are often closely related to perovskite structure, and the structure of these compounds has been described as a distorted, oxygen deficient multi-layered perovskite structure. One of the properties of the crystal structure of oxide superconductors is an alternating multi-layer of CuO2 planes with superconductivity taking place between these layers. The more layers of CuO2, the higher Tc. This structure causes a large anisotropy in normal conducting and superconducting properties, since electrical currents are carried by holes induced in the oxygen sites of the CuO2 sheets. The electrical conduction is highly anisotropic, with a much higher conductivity parallel to the CuO2 plane than in the perpendicular direction. Generally, critical temperatures depend on the chemical compositions, cations substitutions and oxygen content. They can be classified as superstripes; i.e., particular realizations of superlattices at atomic limit made of superconducting atomic layers, wires, dots separated by spacer layers, that gives multiband and multigap superconductivity.

YBaCuO superconductorsEdit

YBCO unit cell

The first superconductor found with Tc > 77 K (liquid nitrogen boiling point) is yttrium barium copper oxide (YBa2Cu3O7−x); the proportions of the three different metals in the YBa2Cu3O7 superconductor are in the mole ratio of 1 to 2 to 3 for yttrium to barium to copper, respectively. Thus, this particular superconductor is often referred to as the 123 superconductor.

The unit cell of YBa2Cu3O7 consists of three pseudocubic elementary perovskite unit cells. Each perovskite unit cell contains a Y or Ba atom at the center: Ba in the bottom unit cell, Y in the middle one, and Ba in the top unit cell. Thus, Y and Ba are stacked in the sequence [Ba–Y–Ba] along the c-axis. All corner sites of the unit cell are occupied by Cu, which has two different coordinations, Cu(1) and Cu(2), with respect to oxygen. There are four possible crystallographic sites for oxygen: O(1), O(2), O(3) and O(4).[23] The coordination polyhedra of Y and Ba with respect to oxygen are different. The tripling of the perovskite unit cell leads to nine oxygen atoms, whereas YBa2Cu3O7 has seven oxygen atoms and, therefore, is referred to as an oxygen-deficient perovskite structure. The structure has a stacking of different layers: (CuO)(BaO)(CuO2)(Y)(CuO2)(BaO)(CuO). One of the key feature of the unit cell of YBa2Cu3O7−x (YBCO) is the presence of two layers of CuO2. The role of the Y plane is to serve as a spacer between two CuO2 planes. In YBCO, the Cu–O chains are known to play an important role for superconductivity. Tc is maximal near 92 K when x ≈ 0.15 and the structure is orthorhombic. Superconductivity disappears at x ≈ 0.6, where the structural transformation of YBCO occurs from orthorhombic to tetragonal.[24]

Bi-, Tl- and Hg-based high-Tc superconductorsEdit

The crystal structure of Bi-, Tl- and Hg-based high-Tc superconductors are very similar.[25] Like YBCO, the perovskite-type feature and the presence of CuO2 layers also exist in these superconductors. However, unlike YBCO, Cu–O chains are not present in these superconductors. The YBCO superconductor has an orthorhombic structure, whereas the other high-Tc superconductors have a tetragonal structure.

The Bi–Sr–Ca–Cu–O system has three superconducting phases forming a homologous series as Bi2Sr2Can−1CunO4+2n+x (n=1, 2 and 3). These three phases are Bi-2201, Bi-2212 and Bi-2223, having transition temperatures of 20, 85 and 110 K, respectively, where the numbering system represent number of atoms for Bi, Sr, Ca and Cu respectively.[26] The two phases have a tetragonal structure which consists of two sheared crystallographic unit cells. The unit cell of these phases has double Bi–O planes which are stacked in a way that the Bi atom of one plane sits below the oxygen atom of the next consecutive plane. The Ca atom forms a layer within the interior of the CuO2 layers in both Bi-2212 and Bi-2223; there is no Ca layer in the Bi-2201 phase. The three phases differ with each other in the number of CuO2 planes; Bi-2201, Bi-2212 and Bi-2223 phases have one, two and three CuO2 planes, respectively. The c axis lattice constants of these phases increases with the number of CuO2 planes (see table below). The coordination of the Cu atom is different in the three phases. The Cu atom forms an octahedral coordination with respect to oxygen atoms in the 2201 phase, whereas in 2212, the Cu atom is surrounded by five oxygen atoms in a pyramidal arrangement. In the 2223 structure, Cu has two coordinations with respect to oxygen: one Cu atom is bonded with four oxygen atoms in square planar configuration and another Cu atom is coordinated with five oxygen atoms in a pyramidal arrangement.[27]

Tl–Ba–Ca–Cu–O superconductor: The first series of the Tl-based superconductor containing one Tl–O layer has the general formula TlBa2Can-1CunO2n+3,[28] whereas the second series containing two Tl–O layers has a formula of Tl2Ba2Can-1CunO2n+4 with n =1, 2 and 3. In the structure of Tl2Ba2CuO6 (Tl-2201), there is one CuO2 layer with the stacking sequence (Tl–O) (Tl–O) (Ba–O) (Cu–O) (Ba–O) (Tl–O) (Tl–O). In Tl2Ba2CaCu2O8 (Tl-2212), there are two Cu–O layers with a Ca layer in between. Similar to the Tl2Ba2CuO6 structure, Tl–O layers are present outside the Ba–O layers. In Tl2Ba2Ca2Cu3O10 (Tl-2223), there are three CuO2 layers enclosing Ca layers between each of these. In Tl-based superconductors, Tc is found to increase with the increase in CuO2 layers. However, the value of Tc decreases after four CuO2 layers in TlBa2Can-1CunO2n+3, and in the Tl2Ba2Can-1CunO2n+4 compound, it decreases after three CuO2 layers.[29]

Hg–Ba–Ca–Cu–O superconductor: The crystal structure of HgBa2CuO4 (Hg-1201),[30] HgBa2CaCu2O6 (Hg-1212) and HgBa2Ca2Cu3O8 (Hg-1223) is similar to that of Tl-1201, Tl-1212 and Tl-1223, with Hg in place of Tl. It is noteworthy that the Tc of the Hg compound (Hg-1201) containing one CuO2 layer is much larger as compared to the one-CuO2-layer compound of thallium (Tl-1201). In the Hg-based superconductor, Tc is also found to increase as the CuO2 layer increases. For Hg-1201, Hg-1212 and Hg-1223, the values of Tc are 94, 128 and the record value at ambient pressure 134 K,[31] respectively, as shown in table below. The observation that the Tc of Hg-1223 increases to 153 K under high pressure indicates that the Tc of this compound is very sensitive to the structure of the compound.[32]

Critical temperature (Tc), crystal structure and lattice constants of some high-Tc superconductors
Formula Notation Tc (K) No. of Cu-O planes
in unit cell
Crystal structure
YBa2Cu3O7 123 92 2 Orthorhombic
Bi2Sr2CuO6 Bi-2201 20 1 Tetragonal
Bi2Sr2CaCu2O8 Bi-2212 85 2 Tetragonal
Bi2Sr2Ca2Cu3O10 Bi-2223 110 3 Tetragonal
Tl2Ba2CuO6 Tl-2201 80 1 Tetragonal
Tl2Ba2CaCu2O8 Tl-2212 108 2 Tetragonal
Tl2Ba2Ca2Cu3O10 Tl-2223 125 3 Tetragonal
TlBa2Ca3Cu4O11 Tl-1234 122 4 Tetragonal
HgBa2CuO4 Hg-1201 94 1 Tetragonal
HgBa2CaCu2O6 Hg-1212 128 2 Tetragonal
HgBa2Ca2Cu3O8 Hg-1223 134 3 Tetragonal

Preparation of high-Tc superconductorsEdit

The simplest method for preparing high-Tc superconductors is a solid-state thermochemical reaction involving mixing, calcination and sintering. The appropriate amounts of precursor powders, usually oxides and carbonates, are mixed thoroughly using a Ball mill. Solution chemistry processes such as coprecipitation, freeze-drying and sol-gel methods are alternative ways for preparing a homogeneous mixture. These powders are calcined in the temperature range from 800 °C to 950 °C for several hours. The powders are cooled, reground and calcined again. This process is repeated several times to get homogeneous material. The powders are subsequently compacted to pellets and sintered. The sintering environment such as temperature, annealing time, atmosphere and cooling rate play a very important role in getting good high-Tc superconducting materials. The YBa2Cu3O7−x compound is prepared by calcination and sintering of a homogeneous mixture of Y2O3, BaCO3 and CuO in the appropriate atomic ratio. Calcination is done at 900–950 °C, whereas sintering is done at 950 °C in an oxygen atmosphere. The oxygen stoichiometry in this material is very crucial for obtaining a superconducting YBa2Cu3O7−x compound. At the time of sintering, the semiconducting tetragonal YBa2Cu3O6 compound is formed, which, on slow cooling in oxygen atmosphere, turns into superconducting YBa2Cu3O7−x. The uptake and loss of oxygen are reversible in YBa2Cu3O7−x. A fully oxygenated orthorhombic YBa2Cu3O7−x sample can be transformed into tetragonal YBa2Cu3O6 by heating in a vacuum at temperature above 700 °C.[24]

The preparation of Bi-, Tl- and Hg-based high-Tc superconductors is difficult compared to YBCO. Problems in these superconductors arise because of the existence of three or more phases having a similar layered structure. Thus, syntactic intergrowth and defects such as stacking faults occur during synthesis and it becomes difficult to isolate a single superconducting phase. For Bi–Sr–Ca–Cu–O, it is relatively simple to prepare the Bi-2212 (Tc ≈ 85 K) phase, whereas it is very difficult to prepare a single phase of Bi-2223 (Tc ≈ 110 K). The Bi-2212 phase appears only after few hours of sintering at 860–870 °C, but the larger fraction of the Bi-2223 phase is formed after a long reaction time of more than a week at 870 °C.[27] Although the substitution of Pb in the Bi–Sr–Ca–Cu–O compound has been found to promote the growth of the high-Tc phase,[33] a long sintering time is still required.


"High-temperature" has two common definitions in the context of superconductivity:

  1. Above the temperature of 30 K that had historically been taken as the upper limit allowed by BCS theory(1957).[citation needed] This is also above the 1973 record of 23 K that had lasted until copper-oxide materials were discovered in 1986.
  2. Having a transition temperature that is a larger fraction of the Fermi temperature than for conventional superconductors such as elemental mercury or lead.[citation needed] This definition encompasses a wider variety of unconventional superconductors and is used in the context of theoretical models.

The label high-Tc may be reserved by some authors[citation needed] for materials with critical temperature greater than the boiling point of liquid nitrogen (77 K or −196 °C). However, a number of materials – including the original discovery and recently discovered pnictide superconductors – had critical temperatures below 77 K but are commonly referred to in publication as being in the high-Tc class.[34][35]

Technological applications could benefit from both the higher critical temperature being above the boiling point of liquid nitrogen and also the higher critical magnetic field (and critical current density) at which superconductivity is destroyed. In magnet applications, the high critical magnetic field may prove more valuable than the high Tc itself. Some cuprates have an upper critical field of about 100 tesla. However, cuprate materials are brittle ceramics which are expensive to manufacture and not easily turned into wires or other useful shapes. Also, high-temperature superconductors do not form large, continuous superconducting domains, but only clusters of microdomains within which superconductivity occurs. They are therefore unsuitable for applications requiring actual superconducted currents, such as magnets for magnetic resonance spectrometers.[36]

After two decades of intense experimental and theoretical research, with over 100,000 published papers on the subject,[37] several common features in the properties of high-temperature superconductors have been identified.[5] As of 2011, no widely accepted theory explains their properties. Relative to conventional superconductors, such as elemental mercury or lead that are adequately explained by the BCS theory, cuprate superconductors (and other unconventional superconductors) remain distinctive. There also has been much debate as to high-temperature superconductivity coexisting with magnetic ordering in YBCO,[38] iron-based superconductors, several ruthenocuprates and other exotic superconductors, and the search continues for other families of materials. HTS are Type-II superconductors, which allow magnetic fields to penetrate their interior in quantized units of flux, meaning that much higher magnetic fields are required to suppress superconductivity. The layered structure also gives a directional dependence to the magnetic field response.


Simplified doping dependent phase diagram of cuprate superconductors for both electron (n) and hole (p) doping. The phases shown are the antiferromagnetic (AF) phase close to zero doping, the superconducting phase around optimal doping, and the pseudogap phase. Doping ranges possible for some common compounds are also shown. After.[39]

Cuprate superconductors are generally considered to be quasi-two-dimensional materials with their superconducting properties determined by electrons moving within weakly coupled copper-oxide (CuO2) layers. Neighbouring layers containing ions such as lanthanum, barium, strontium, or other atoms act to stabilize the structure and dope electrons or holes onto the copper-oxide layers. The undoped "parent" or "mother" compounds are Mott insulators with long-range antiferromagnetic order at low enough temperature. Single band models are generally considered to be sufficient to describe the electronic properties.

The cuprate superconductors adopt a perovskite structure. The copper-oxide planes are checkerboard lattices with squares of O2− ions with a Cu2+ ion at the centre of each square. The unit cell is rotated by 45° from these squares. Chemical formulae of superconducting materials generally contain fractional numbers to describe the doping required for superconductivity. There are several families of cuprate superconductors and they can be categorized by the elements they contain and the number of adjacent copper-oxide layers in each superconducting block. For example, YBCO and BSCCO can alternatively be referred to as Y123 and Bi2201/Bi2212/Bi2223 depending on the number of layers in each superconducting block (n). The superconducting transition temperature has been found to peak at an optimal doping value (p=0.16) and an optimal number of layers in each superconducting block, typically n=3.

Possible mechanisms for superconductivity in the cuprates are still the subject of considerable debate and further research. Certain aspects common to all materials have been identified.[5] Similarities between the antiferromagnetic low-temperature state of the undoped materials and the superconducting state that emerges upon doping, primarily the dx2-y2 orbital state of the Cu2+ ions, suggest that electron-electron interactions are more significant than electron-phonon interactions in cuprates – making the superconductivity unconventional. Recent work on the Fermi surface has shown that nesting occurs at four points in the antiferromagnetic Brillouin zone where spin waves exist and that the superconducting energy gap is larger at these points. The weak isotope effects observed for most cuprates contrast with conventional superconductors that are well described by BCS theory.

Similarities and differences in the properties of hole-doped and electron doped cuprates:

  • Presence of a pseudogap phase up to at least optimal doping.
  • Different trends in the Uemura plot relating transition temperature to the superfluid density. The inverse square of the London penetration depth appears to be proportional to the critical temperature for a large number of underdoped cuprate superconductors, but the constant of proportionality is different for hole- and electron-doped cuprates. The linear trend implies that the physics of these materials is strongly two-dimensional.
  • Universal hourglass-shaped feature in the spin excitations of cuprates measured using inelastic neutron diffraction.
  • Nernst effect evident in both the superconducting and pseudogap phases.
Fig. 1. The Fermi surface of bi-layer BSCCO, calculated (left) and measured by ARPES (right). The dashed rectangle represents the first Brillouin zone.

The electronic structure of superconducting cuprates is highly anisotropic (see the crystal structure of YBCO or BSCCO). Therefore, the Fermi surface of HTSC is very close to the Fermi surface of the doped CuO2 plane (or multi-planes, in case of multi-layer cuprates) and can be presented on the 2D reciprocal space (or momentum space) of the CuO2 lattice. The typical Fermi surface within the first CuO2 Brillouin zone is sketched in Fig. 1 (left). It can be derived from the band structure calculations or measured by angle resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES). Fig. 1 (right) shows the Fermi surface of BSCCO measured by ARPES. In a wide range of charge carrier concentration (doping level), in which the hole-doped HTSC are superconducting, the Fermi surface is hole-like (i.e. open, as shown in Fig. 1). This results in an inherent in-plane anisotropy of the electronic properties of HTSC.

Iron-based superconductorsEdit

Simplified doping dependent phase diagrams of iron-based superconductors for both Ln-1111 and Ba-122 materials. The phases shown are the antiferromagnetic/spin density wave (AF/SDW) phase close to zero doping and the superconducting phase around optimal doping. The Ln-1111 phase diagrams for La[40] and Sm[41][42] were determined using muon spin spectroscopy, the phase diagram for Ce[43] was determined using neutron diffraction. The Ba-122 phase diagram is based on.[44]

Iron-based superconductors contain layers of iron and a pnictogen—such as arsenic or phosphorus—or a chalcogen. This is currently the family with the second highest critical temperature, behind the cuprates. Interest in their superconducting properties began in 2006 with the discovery of superconductivity in LaFePO at 4 K[45] and gained much greater attention in 2008 after the analogous material LaFeAs(O,F)[46] was found to superconduct at up to 43 K under pressure.[47] The highest critical temperatures in the iron-based superconductor family exist in thin films of FeSe,[48] [49] [50] where a critical temperature in excess of 100 K has recently been reported.[51]

Since the original discoveries several families of iron-based superconductors have emerged:

  • LnFeAs(O,F) or LnFeAsO1−x (Ln=lanthanide) with Tc up to 56 K, referred to as 1111 materials.[7] A fluoride variant of these materials was subsequently found with similar Tc values.[52]
  • (Ba,K)Fe2As2 and related materials with pairs of iron-arsenide layers, referred to as 122 compounds. Tc values range up to 38 K.[53][54] These materials also superconduct when iron is replaced with cobalt
  • LiFeAs and NaFeAs with Tc up to around 20 K. These materials superconduct close to stoichiometric composition and are referred to as 111 compounds.[55][56][57]
  • FeSe with small off-stoichiometry or tellurium doping.[58]

Most undoped iron-based superconductors show a tetragonal-orthorhombic structural phase transition followed at lower temperature by magnetic ordering, similar to the cuprate superconductors.[43] However, they are poor metals rather than Mott insulators and have five bands at the Fermi surface rather than one.[59] The phase diagram emerging as the iron-arsenide layers are doped is remarkably similar, with the superconducting phase close to or overlapping the magnetic phase. Strong evidence that the Tc value varies with the As-Fe-As bond angles has already emerged and shows that the optimal Tc value is obtained with undistorted FeAs4 tetrahedra.[60] The symmetry of the pairing wavefunction is still widely debated, but an extended s-wave scenario is currently favoured.

Hydrogen sulfideEdit

At pressures above 90 GPa (Gigapascals), hydrogen sulfide becomes a metallic conductor of electricity. When cooled below a critical temperature this high-pressure phase exhibits superconductivity. The critical temperature increases with pressure, ranging from 23 K at 100 GPa to 150 K at 200 GPa.[61] If hydrogen sulfide is pressurized at higher temperatures, then cooled, the critical temperature reaches 203 K (−70 °C), the highest accepted superconducting critical temperature as of 2015.[9] It has been predicted that by substituting a small part of sulfur with phosphorus and using even higher pressures it may be possible to raise the critical temperature to above 0 °C (273 K) and achieve room-temperature superconductivity.[9][62]

Other materials sometimes referred to as high-temperature superconductorsEdit

Magnesium diboride is occasionally referred to as a high-temperature superconductor[63] because its Tc value of 39 K is above that historically expected for BCS superconductors. However, it is more generally regarded as the highest-Tc conventional superconductor, the increased Tc resulting from two separate bands being present at the Fermi level.

Fulleride superconductors[64] where alkali-metal atoms are intercalated into C60 molecules show superconductivity at temperatures of up to 38 K for Cs3C60.[65]

Some organic superconductors and heavy fermion compounds are considered to be high-temperature superconductors because of their high Tc values relative to their Fermi energy, despite the Tc values being lower than for many conventional superconductors.[citation needed] This description may relate better to common aspects of the superconducting mechanism than the superconducting properties.

Metallic hydrogenEdit

Theoretical work by Neil Ashcroft in 1968 predicted that solid metallic hydrogen at extremely high pressure should become superconducting at approximately room-temperature because of its extremely high speed of sound and expected strong coupling between the conduction electrons and the lattice vibrations.[66] As of 2016 this prediction is yet to be experimentally verified.

Magnetic propertiesEdit

All known high-Tc superconductors are Type-II superconductors. In contrast to Type-I superconductors, which expel all magnetic fields due to the Meissner effect, Type-II superconductors allow magnetic fields to penetrate their interior in quantized units of flux, creating "holes" or "tubes" of normal metallic regions in the superconducting bulk called vortices. Consequently, high-Tc superconductors can sustain much higher magnetic fields.

Ongoing researchEdit

Superconductor timeline

The question of how superconductivity arises in high-temperature superconductors is one of the major unsolved problems of theoretical condensed matter physics. The mechanism that causes the electrons in these crystals to form pairs is not known.[5] Despite intensive research and many promising leads, an explanation has so far eluded scientists. One reason for this is that the materials in question are generally very complex, multi-layered crystals (for example, BSCCO), making theoretical modelling difficult.

Improving the quality and variety of samples also gives rise to considerable research, both with the aim of improved characterisation of the physical properties of existing compounds, and synthesizing new materials, often with the hope of increasing Tc. Technological research focuses on making HTS materials in sufficient quantities to make their use economically viable and optimizing their properties in relation to applications.

Possible mechanismEdit

There have been two representative theories for high-temperature or unconventional superconductivity. Firstly, weak coupling theory suggests superconductivity emerges from antiferromagnetic spin fluctuations in a doped system.[67] According to this theory, the pairing wave function of the cuprate HTS should have a dx2-y2 symmetry. Thus, determining whether the pairing wave function has d-wave symmetry is essential to test the spin fluctuation mechanism. That is, if the HTS order parameter (pairing wave function) does not have d-wave symmetry, then a pairing mechanism related to spin fluctuations can be ruled out. (Similar arguments can be made for iron-based superconductors but the different material properties allow a different pairing symmetry.) Secondly, there was the interlayer coupling model, according to which a layered structure consisting of BCS-type (s-wave symmetry) superconductors can enhance the superconductivity by itself.[68] By introducing an additional tunnelling interaction between each layer, this model successfully explained the anisotropic symmetry of the order parameter as well as the emergence of the HTS. Thus, in order to solve this unsettled problem, there have been numerous experiments such as photoemission spectroscopy, NMR, specific heat measurements, etc. Up to date the results were ambiguous, some reports supported the d symmetry for the HTS whereas others supported the s symmetry. This muddy situation possibly originated from the indirect nature of the experimental evidence, as well as experimental issues such as sample quality, impurity scattering, twinning, etc.

Junction experiment supporting the d symmetryEdit

The Meissner effect or a magnet levitating above a superconductor (cooled by liquid nitrogen)

An experiment based on flux quantization of a three-grain ring of YBa2Cu3O7 (YBCO) was proposed to test the symmetry of the order parameter in the HTS. The symmetry of the order parameter could best be probed at the junction interface as the Cooper pairs tunnel across a Josephson junction or weak link.[69] It was expected that a half-integer flux, that is, a spontaneous magnetization could only occur for a junction of d symmetry superconductors. But, even if the junction experiment is the strongest method to determine the symmetry of the HTS order parameter, the results have been ambiguous. J. R. Kirtley and C. C. Tsuei thought that the ambiguous results came from the defects inside the HTS, so that they designed an experiment where both clean limit (no defects) and dirty limit (maximal defects) were considered simultaneously.[70] In the experiment, the spontaneous magnetization was clearly observed in YBCO, which supported the d symmetry of the order parameter in YBCO. But, since YBCO is orthorhombic, it might inherently have an admixture of s symmetry. So, by tuning their technique further, they found that there was an admixture of s symmetry in YBCO within about 3%.[71] Also, they found that there was a pure dx2-y2 order parameter symmetry in the tetragonal Tl2Ba2CuO6.[72]

Qualitative explanation of the spin-fluctuation mechanismEdit

Despite all these years, the mechanism of high-Tc superconductivity is still highly controversial, mostly due to the lack of exact theoretical computations on such strongly interacting electron systems. However, most rigorous theoretical calculations, including phenomenological and diagrammatic approaches, converge on magnetic fluctuations as the pairing mechanism for these systems. The qualitative explanation is as follows:

In a superconductor, the flow of electrons cannot be resolved into individual electrons, but instead consists of many pairs of bound electrons, called Cooper pairs. In conventional superconductors, these pairs are formed when an electron moving through the material distorts the surrounding crystal lattice, which in turn attracts another electron and forms a bound pair. This is sometimes called the "water bed" effect. Each Cooper pair requires a certain minimum energy to be displaced, and if the thermal fluctuations in the crystal lattice are smaller than this energy the pair can flow without dissipating energy. This ability of the electrons to flow without resistance leads to superconductivity.

In a high-Tc superconductor, the mechanism is extremely similar to a conventional superconductor, except, in this case, phonons virtually play no role and their role is replaced by spin-density waves. Just as all known conventional superconductors are strong phonon systems, all known high-Tc superconductors are strong spin-density wave systems, within close vicinity of a magnetic transition to, for example, an antiferromagnet. When an electron moves in a high-Tc superconductor, its spin creates a spin-density wave around it. This spin-density wave in turn causes a nearby electron to fall into the spin depression created by the first electron (water-bed effect again). Hence, again, a Cooper pair is formed. When the system temperature is lowered, more spin density waves and Cooper pairs are created, eventually leading to superconductivity. Note that in high-Tc systems, as these systems are magnetic systems due to the Coulomb interaction, there is a strong Coulomb repulsion between electrons. This Coulomb repulsion prevents pairing of the Cooper pairs on the same lattice site. The pairing of the electrons occur at near-neighbor lattice sites as a result. This is the so-called d-wave pairing, where the pairing state has a node (zero) at the origin.


Examples of high-Tc cuprate superconductors include La1.85Ba0.15CuO4, and YBCO (yttrium-barium-copper oxide), which is famous as the first material to achieve superconductivity above the boiling point of liquid nitrogen.

Transition temperatures of well-known superconductors (Boiling point of liquid nitrogen for comparison)
Transition temperature
(in kelvins)
Transition temperature
(in degrees Celsius)
Material Class
203 −70 H2S (at 150 GPa pressure)[9] Hydrogen-based superconductor
195 −78 Sublimation point of dry ice
184 −89.2 Lowest temperature recorded on Earth
145 -128 Boiling point of Tetrafluoromethane
133 −140 HgBa2Ca2Cu3Ox(HBCCO) Copper-oxide superconductors
110 −163 Bi2Sr2Ca2Cu3O10(BSCCO)
93 −180 YBa2Cu3O7 (YBCO)
90 −183 Boiling point of liquid oxygen
77 −196 Boiling point of liquid nitrogen
55 −218 SmFeAs(O,F) Iron-based superconductors
41 −232 CeFeAs(O,F)
26 −247 LaFeAs(O,F)
20 −253 Boiling point of liquid hydrogen
18 −255 Nb3Sn Metallic low-temperature superconductors
10 −263 NbTi
9.2 −263.8 Nb
4.2 −268.8 Boiling point of liquid helium
4.2 −268.8 Hg (mercury) Metallic low-temperature superconductors

See alsoEdit


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