Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Argonne scientists discover new magnetic phase in iron-based superconductors


Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have discovered a previously unknown phase in a class of superconductors called iron arsenides. This sheds light on a debate over the interactions between atoms and electrons that are responsible for their unusual superconductivity.

“This new magnetic phase, which has never been observed before, could have significant implications for our understanding of unconventional superconductivity,” said Ray Osborn, an Argonne physicist and coauthor on the paper.

A neutron diffraction image giving evidence for the new magnetic phase in iron-based superconductors discovered by Argonne scientists. It shows the scattering results from a sample of barium iron arsenide with sodium ions added to 24% of the barium sites. Nematic order sets in below 90 K (about -300°F), but four-fold symmetry is restored below 40 K (-387°F). The resulting atomic and magnetic structures are illustrated in the figure on the right, in which the blue spheres represent iron atoms and the red arrows show the direction of their magnetic moments. Credit: Image by Jared Allred / Argonne National Laboratory

Scientists and engineers are fascinated with superconductors because they are capable of carrying electric current without any resistance. This is unique among all conductors: even good ones, like the copper wires used in most power cords, lose energy along the way. Why don’t we use superconductors for every power line in the country, then? Their biggest drawback is that they must be cooled to very, very cold temperatures to work. Also, we do not fully understand how the newest types, called unconventional superconductors, work. Researchers hope that by figuring out the theory behind these superconductors, we could raise the temperature at which they work and harness their power for a wide range of new technologies.

The theory behind older, “conventional” superconductors is fairly well understood. Pairs of electrons, which normally repel each other, instead bind together by distorting the atoms around them and help each other travel through the metal. (In a plain old conductor, these electrons bounce off the atoms, producing heat). In “unconventional” superconductors, the electrons still form pairs, but we don’t know what binds them together.

Superconductors are notably finicky; in order to get to the superconducting phase—where electricity flows freely—they need a lot of coddling. The iron arsenides the researchers studied are normally magnetic, but as you add sodium to the mix, the magnetism is suppressed and the materials eventually become superconducting below roughly -400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Magnetic order also affects the atomic structure. At room temperature, the iron atoms sit on a square lattice, which has four-fold symmetry, but when cooled below the magnetic transition temperature, they distort to form a rectangular lattice, with only two-fold symmetry. This is sometimes called “nematic order.” It was thought that this nematic order persists until the material becomes superconducting—until this result. 

The Argonne team discovered a phase where the material returns to four-fold symmetry, rather than two-fold, close to the onset of superconductivity. (See diagram).

“It is visible using neutron powder diffraction, which is exquisitely sensitive, but which you can only perform at this resolution in a very few places in the world,” Osborn said. Neutron powder diffraction reveals both the locations of the atoms and the directions of their microscopic magnetic moments.

The reason why the discovery of the new phase is interesting is that it may help to resolve a long-standing debate about the origin of nematic order. Theorists have been arguing whether it is caused by magnetism or by orbital ordering.

The orbital explanation posits that electrons like to sit in particular d orbitals, driving the lattice into the nematic phase. Magnetic models, on the other hand (developed by study co-authors Ilya Eremin and Andrey Chubukov at the Institut für Theoretische Physik in Germany and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, respectively) suggest that magnetic interactions are what drive the two-fold symmetry—and that they are the key to the superconductivity itself. Perhaps what binds the pairs of electrons together in iron arsenide superconductors is magnetism.

“Orbital theories do not predict a return to four-fold symmetry at this point,” Osborn said, “but magnetic models do.”

“So far, this effect has only been observed experimentally in these sodium-doped compounds,” he said, “but we believe it provides evidence for a magnetic explanation of nematic order in the iron arsenides in general.”

It could also affect our understanding of superconductivity in other types of superconductors, such as the copper oxides, where nematic distortions have also been seen, Osborn said.

The paper, titled “Magnetically driven suppression of nematic order in an iron-based superconductor,” was published today in Nature Communications.

Other coauthors on the paper were Argonne scientists Sevda Avci (now at Afyon Kocatepe University in Turkey), Omar Chmaissem (a joint appointment with Northern Illinois University), Jared M. Allred, Stephan Rosenkranz, Daniel Bugaris, Duck Young Chung, John-Paul Castellan, John Schlueter, Helmut Claus and Mercouri Kanatzidis (a joint appointment with Northwestern University); and Dmitry Khalyavin, Pascal Manuel and Aziz Daoud-Aladine at the ISIS Pulsed Neutron and Muon Source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, U.K.

Funding for the research was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The neutron powder diffraction was performed at ISIS.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

For more information, visit

Jared Sagoff | Eurek Alert!
Further information:

Further reports about: ISIS Magnetic Neutron copper energy powder superconductors temperature

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Climate study finds evidence of global shift in the 1980s

Planet Earth experienced a global climate shift in the late 1980s on an unprecedented scale, fuelled by anthropogenic warming and a volcanic eruption, according to new research published this week.

Scientists say that a major step change, or ‘regime shift’, in the Earth’s biophysical systems, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from...

Im Focus: Innovative Photovoltaics – from the Lab to the Façade

Fraunhofer ISE Demonstrates New Cell and Module Technologies on its Outer Building Façade

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...

Im Focus: Lactate for Brain Energy

Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.

In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...

Im Focus: Laser process simulation available as app for first time

In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.

Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...

Im Focus: Quantum Simulation: A Better Understanding of Magnetism

Heidelberg physicists use ultracold atoms to imitate the behaviour of electrons in a solid

Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Fraunhofer’s Urban Futures Conference: 2 days in the city of the future

25.11.2015 | Event News

Gluten oder nicht Gluten? Überempfindlichkeit auf Weizen kann unterschiedliche Ursachen haben

17.11.2015 | Event News

Art Collection Deutsche Börse zeigt Ausstellung „Traces of Disorder“

21.10.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Siemens to supply 126 megawatts to onshore wind power plants in Scotland

27.11.2015 | Press release

Two decades of training students and experts in tracking infectious disease

27.11.2015 | Life Sciences

Coming to a monitor near you: A defect-free, molecule-thick film

27.11.2015 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>