Booze-Soaked Superconductors Provide Hot Physics Results

By Shannon Palus | January 18, 2011 7:34 am

A paper that explores the unlikely coupling of warm wine and the electric properties of iron is currently making its rounds on the media circuit—leading us to conclude that people get excited about science when there is alcohol involved.

“Drunk scientists pour wine on superconductors and make incredibly discovery,” declares the (slightly inaccurate) headline on io9. “’Tis the season to be pickling your liver in alcohol,” announces the (slightly irrelevant) opening line of a CNET article.

The researchers’ experiment—led by Keita Deguchi of the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan—involved first submersing an iron alloy in various hot alcoholic beverages, and then finding the temperature at which the treated alloy starts to display superconducting properties. A superconductor is a material that has no electrical resistivity, allowing electrons to flow through it with essentially zero friction.

The paper abstract, which was published on arXiv, gives an overview of the experiment’s findings and method (although there’s no mention of beverage consumption that might have inspired these scientific antics):

“We found that hot commercial alcohol drinks are much effective to induce superconductivity in FeTe0.8S0.2 compared to water, ethanol and water-ethanol mixture…. Any elements in alcohol drinks, other than water and ethanol, would play an important role to induce superconductivity.”

The researchers tried the experiment with beer, red wine, white wine, Japanese sake, Shochu, and whisky, heating each liquid to 70 degrees Celsius. (Extremely hot beer—yum!) The result: soaking the iron alloy in party drinks made the metal act like a superconductor at higher temperatures than if it was simply soaked it in water and ethanol, and red wine produced the best results. Less sensational things that the researches have recently found to induce superconductivity include moisture and oxygen annealing.

Superconductors are super-cool: Place a magnet above a super-conductor, and it will just stay there, levitating; give it a spin and it will spin like a top that is both immune to gravity held steady by some invisible force (this is called the Meissner effect). Superconducting materials have applications in such modern wonders as particle accelerators, MRI imaging, more efficient power transmission lines, and levitating trains.

The snag in the more sci-fi applications of this technology: superconductors only work when they’re really, really cold. The Large Hadron Collider‘s superconducting magnets, for example, function at about -271 degrees Celsius.

Research—booze-soaked and otherwise—in hot superconduction brings science closer to understanding how superconducting can be induced at warmer temperatures, and how to coax better performance out of superconducting materials. Maybe one day scientists will figure out room temperature superconducting, which would allow for more mundane, large-scale applications.

So what’s the next baby step toward a future filled with flying cars and energy efficiency? The team suggests hitting the bottles again:

“To clarify the origin of evolution of superconductivity with hot alcohol drinks, detailed investigation in crystal structure is needed,” the paper states.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Are Booze-Drenched Societies More Likely To Be Monogamous?
Discoblog: Alcohol Makes You Think Everyone Is Out to Get You
Discoblog: How Do You Like Your Vodka Molecules: Shaken or Stirred?
Discoblog: How to Tell a Fine Old Wine: Look for That Hint of Radioactive C-14
Discoblog: Each Shot of Mezcal Contains a Little Bit of DNA From the “Worm”

Image: flickr / jessicamelling

  • Chris

    I think you may want to check your temps. The paper has the superconducting state at around 7.8 K, nowhere near your -240 and -140 C.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Chris: I changed the text to be a bit more specific and accurate. Superconductors like those used at the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider are chilled to just above absolute zero: 2 degrees Kelvin, or -271 degrees Celsius.

    And since there’s a range for what is considered a “hot” superconductor (some sources put the threshold at 30 degrees Kelvin, or -243 degrees Celsius, while others consider the magic line to be 77 degrees Kelvin, or -192 Celsius) I took that bit out.

    – Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • David Scott

    Resistance of Clorox is also zero

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