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Cambridge research could unlock graphene superconductors

New paper suggests that coupling graphene with another material could enable it to superconduct, opening up applications in computing and energy storage

Since its discovery in 2004, scientists have believed that graphene may have the innate ability to superconduct. Now Cambridge researchers have found a way to activate that previously dormant potential.

It has long been postulated that graphene should undergo a superconducting transition, but can’t.
Researchers have found a way to trigger the innate, but previously hidden, ability of graphene to act as a superconductor – meaning that it can be made to carry an electrical current with zero resistance.

The finding, reported in Nature Communications, enhances the potential of graphene, which is already widely seen as a material that could revolutionise industries such as healthcare and electronics.

Since its discovery in 2004, scientists have speculated that graphene may also have the capacity to be a superconductor. Until now, superconductivity in graphene has only been achieved by doping it with, or by placing it on, a superconducting material – a process which can compromise some of its other properties.

But in the new study, researchers at the University of Cambridge managed to activate the dormant potential for graphene to superconduct in its own right. This was achieved by coupling it with a material called praseodymium cerium copper oxide (PCCO).

 

Quantum devices

Superconductors are already used in numerous applications. Because they generate large magnetic fields they are an essential component in MRI scanners and levitating trains. They could also be used to make energy-efficient power lines and devices capable of storing energy for millions of years (an area of intense interest for any battery or EV manufacturer).

Superconducting graphene opens up yet more possibilities. The researchers suggest, for example, that graphene could now be used to create new types of superconducting quantum devices for high-speed computing.

The research was led by Dr Angelo Di Bernardo and Dr Jason Robinson, Fellows at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, alongside collaborators Professor Andrea Ferrari, from the Cambridge Graphene Centre; Professor Oded Millo, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Professor Jacob Linder, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

Similar approaches have been taken in previous studies using metallic-based superconductors, but with limited success. “Placing graphene on a metal can dramatically alter the properties so it is technically no longer behaving as we would expect,” Di Bernardo said. “What you see is not graphene’s intrinsic superconductivity, but simply that of the underlying superconductor being passed on.”

PCCO is an oxide from a wider class of superconducting materials called “cuprates”. It also has well-understood electronic properties, and using a technique called scanning and tunnelling microscopy, the researchers were able to distinguish the superconductivity in PCCO from the superconductivity observed in graphene.

Superconductivity is characterised by the way the electrons interact: within a superconductor electrons form pairs, and the spin alignment between the electrons of a pair may be different depending on the type – or “symmetry” – of superconductivity involved. In PCCO, for example, the pairs’ spin state is misaligned (antiparallel), in what is known as a “d-wave state”.

 

Unleashed

By contrast, when graphene was coupled to superconducting PCCO in the Cambridge-led experiment, the results suggested that the electron pairs within graphene were in a p-wave state. “What we saw in the graphene was, in other words, a very different type of superconductivity than in PCCO,” Robinson said. “This was a really important step because it meant that we knew the superconductivity was not coming from outside it and that the PCCO was therefore only required to unleash the intrinsic superconductivity of graphene.”

The study also has further implications. For example, it suggests that graphene could be used to make a transistor-like device in a superconducting circuit, and that its superconductivity could be incorporated into molecular electronics. “In principle, given the variety of chemical molecules that can bind to graphene’s surface, this research can result in the development of molecular electronics devices with novel functionalities based on superconducting graphene,” Di Bernardo added.

Most interestingly from Electrans, the discovery could help enable the development of functional; graphene batteries, a vital step on the road towards true mass-market appeal for EVs.

Source: University of Cambridge

 

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