Magnetically levitated trains, mobile telephones, energy storage: superconductivity could one day transform our daily lives. The world of science has joined up with the world of art so that the general public can learn all about this amazing physics discovery.
SUPRA100 is an exhibition that associates the world of science with the world of art so that the general public can learn all about this amazing physics discovery. MaNEP, the University of Geneva and the artist Etienne Krähenbühl conceived this exhibition in 2011 to celebrate the century of the discovery of superconductivity.
When some materials are cooled sufficiently, an electrical current is able to pass through without any resistance: this is known as superconductivity. This is the new aspect explored by Etienne Krähenbühl.
The Swiss artist, author of the artwork presented during the SUPRA100 exhibition, is well known for using innovative materials having "shape memory". Etienne Krähenbühl likes playing around with the laws of nature to create a magical effect to his artistic creations.
Un documentary in French retraces the encounter between the scientists of the national centre of research MaNEP and the artist Etienne Krähenbühl. This documentary was made from 2007 to 2011. The film recounts the incredible adventure culminating in the creation of a scientific artwork. Suspended between doubt and research, experimentation and result, it is the story of the collaboration between art and science. An opportunity to discover superconductivity via an artistic approach.
As mentioned beforehand, certain materials can be superconductors; that is when they are sufficiently cooled they are able to pass an electric current without resistance, thus avoiding any loss of energy.
Furthermore, superconductivity is visible by a unique and spectacular phenomenon: magnetic levitation. In fact, once it has cooled, a superconductor becomes impermeable to magnetic fields allowing it to float either above or below a magnet without departing from it. This phenomenon may one day revolutionise our way of life with its various uses!
In April 1911, the Dutchman, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (Nobel Prize for Physics 1913) and his student Gilles Host made the most important discovery of their careers. By studying the electrical resistance of mercury, they discovered that this resistance fell sharply when lowering the temperature to a temperature close to absolute zero (-273 °C)! This mysterious discovery opened up new horizons in physics research. While research advanced, it remained mostly within the confines of the physics laboratory until the great breakthrough of 1986 when German scientist, George Johannes Bednorz and Swiss scientist, Karl Alex Müller (in the research laboratories of IBM in Zurich, Rüschlikon) discovered superconductors with a much higher critical temperature. This resulted in them being awarded the Nobel Prize just one year later.
They discovered a matter that becomes a superconductor at -238°C, whereas the previous record held since 1973 was at -249.8°C for niobium germanium. This was followed a few months later by other researchers announcing that similar compounds were super-connecting at -180°C. This was a very important step because these substances can now be cooled with liquid nitrogen (-196°C), which up until then were cooled with the more expensive liquid helium (-269°C).
Despite 100 years of research, researchers in superconductivity are still kept in suspense including those of many of the researchers in the MaNEP National Centre for Research on new materials with exceptional properties.
A film to learn more
To learn more about superconductivity, a film illustrating superconductivity in a basic way was made by MaNEP in 2007.
This film “Superconductivity: a brief overview of a great enigma”, lasts 15 minutes and is available on request (DVD) – in English, French and German.
Current and future uses of Superconductivity
Over the years, superconductors have been developed for use for medicine in hospitals, notably Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). They are also used for the development of magnetic levitation for ultra-rapid trains (MagLev) and energy storage. Discover four spectacular applications using superconducting magnetic fields. [more info]
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