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An iron grip on superconductivity

Superconductors usually provide zero electrical resistance at low temperatures.Credit: ktsimage/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Xian-Hui Chen’s team has been creating iron-based materials that perform as superconductors at relatively high temperatures, bringing the cooling of superconductors tantalizingly close to cost efficiency.

In 2008, Chen’s group reported superconductivity above 40 Kelvin (-233 degrees Celsius) in an iron pnictide in Nature, suggesting iron-based superconductors form a second family of high-temperature superconductors, next to cuprates. Since then, Chen’s group has hunted for new iron-based materials and hopes to raise superconducting temperatures higher than 77 Kelvin (-196 degrees Celsius), the temperature of more affordable cooling element, liquid nitrogen. In 2015, Chen’s group reported superconductivity above 40 Kelvin in another iron-based material − layered iron selenides − in Nature Materials.

In 2020, the group successfully raised the superconducting pairing temperature of a new type of layered iron selenide, intercalated with tetrabutyl ammonium, an organic ion, to 65 Kelvin (-208 degrees Celsius). However, only one of two necessary conditions for superconductivity was boosted to higher temperature: the phenomenon in which electrons form pairs, known as Cooper Pairs. In this case, the real superconducting temperature is affected by the coherence among preformed Cooper Pairs.

“If we can increase the carrier density to raise the superfluid density enough, hopefully we can push it to 80 Kelvin (-193 degrees Celsius), which has been suggested is possible by recent measurements of the superconducting gap in iron selenide films,” says Chen. This would open up the use of the liquid nitrogen.

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