- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

A new form of matter recently created by scientists might eventually lead to better superconductors. The fermionic condensate, only the sixth known form of matter, was formed by scientists at a laboratory jointly operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado. To produce it, scientists condensed half a million potassium atoms down to 50 billionths of a degree Fahrenheit above absolute zero (-459 degrees) and tweaked them with a magnetic field, producing the condensate. Fermionic condensates are a transitional form of matter, akin to both a gas and a Bose-Einstein condensate and having superconductive qualities.

Physicists divide elementary particles into two types: fermions and bosons. Fermions are the ordinary stuff of matter, such as protons, neutrons and electrons, while bosons carry forces between them. Fermions act independently of one another, but bosons are copy-cats, easily duplicating one another’s behavior. When cooled to near-absolute zero and condensed, collections of bosons behave like a single super-atom — a Bose-Einstein condensate. Those condensates are superfluids — they show no resistance to flow. For some time, physicists have thought that superfluidity is closely linked to superconductivity, the absence of resistance to electrical current.

Superconductors were discovered in 1911 by physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who found that mercury cooled down to a few degrees above absolute zero gave no resistance to an electrical current passed through it. Higher-temperature superconductors were discovered in the mid-1980s. Researchers have subsequently produced superconductors above the cooling point of liquid nitrogen.

Approximately 10 percent of the electricity produced in the United States is lost as heat, and so higher-temperature superconductors have long been of interest to power producers and manufacturers. They see great commercial potential in super-efficient electrical conductors and motors.

Superconductors are already being used in a variety of applications, ranging from medical technologies like magnetic resonance imagers to ultra-high performance filters for cellular telephone systems. The military is using superconductors to detect mines, and may eventually use them in motors. In 1999, Japan’s MagLev train achieved a speed of 343 miles per hour. In 2001, the company American Superconductor built a super-efficient 5,000 hp motor with high-temperature superconductors for the Navy. The demonstration design was a fraction of the size and weight of its conventional counterpart.

The production of the fermionic condensate is not likely to lead to any immediate manufacturing breakthroughs, but may one day open the door to room-temperature superconductors. Considering its potential implications and commercial applications, Congress would be wise to continue to fund basic research on super-cold, super-conductive condensates.

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