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Unconventional superconductivity near absolute zero temperature


Researchers at the Goethe University in Frankfurt have discovered an important mechanism for superconductivity in a metallic compound containing ytterbium, rhodium and silicon.

Researchers at the Goethe University have discovered an important mechanism for superconductivity in a metallic compound containing ytterbium, rhodium and silicon. As reported by Cornelius Krellner and his colleagues in the current edition of the "Science" journal, the underlying concept of the quantum-critical point has long been discussed as a possible mechanism for high-temperature superconductivity.

Confirming this in YbRh2Si2 after 10 years of extensive research is thus a milestone in basic research. Due to its extremely low transition temperature of two-thousandths of a degree above absolute zero, the material will have no practical relevance.

"The ytterbium atoms are essential to the material properties because they are magnetic – and for a particularly fascinating reason", Prof. Krellner from the Institute for Physics at Goethe University explains. This is because the transition to the magnetized state (phase transition) takes place at such low temperatures that temperature-related movements of the tiny atomic magnets no longer play a role.

This is what distinguishes this phase transition from all other known transitions, such as the freezing of water into ice. Quantum fluctuations dominate at temperatures near absolute zero (minus 273 degrees). These are so strong that nature attempts to take on alternative ordered fundamental states.

Superconductivity is a potential collective state which can arise at a quantum-critical point. "After we discovered it in YbRh2Si2, we were able to show that unconventional superconductivity is a general mechanism at a quantum-critical point", Krellner explains. The elaborate low-temperature measurements were taken in collaboration with the Walther-Meißner Institute for Low Temperature Research in Garching.

Cornelius Krellner studied YbRh2Si2 10 years ago while working towards his doctorate at the Max-Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids. At the time, he was growing single crystals of the compound. The quality and size of these was essential to measuring the material properties in the first place.

"We were all very enthusiastic when we saw the first indications of superconductivity, and I put all my efforts into growing even better and larger single crystals", remembers Krellner, who has headed the Crystal and Materials Laboratory at Goethe University since 2012.

That it took so long after that to produce the final proof of unconventional superconductivity was due to the fact that the measurements are extremely time-consuming. Furthermore, it was necessary to study the superconductivity with different techniques in order to show that it really was a case of unconventional superconductivity.

Krellner and his team use a special method to grow the crystals. It prevents ytterbium from vaporizing at the required high temperatures of 1500 degrees Celsius. "We are currently the only ones in Europe with the capability of producing single crystals of YbRh2Si2" Krellner is proud to tell us.

Over the next few years, he and his colleagues want to study the magnetic order above the superconducting range. Physicists will also study the superconductivity itself in greater detail over the next few years – a task which will be enabled by the pure and large single crystals from AG Krellner.

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Publication: E. Schuberth et al., Emergence of Heavy-Electron Superconductivity by the Ordering of Nuclear Spins. Science (2016).

Information: Prof. Dr. Cornelius Krellner, Institute of Physics, Phone.: (069) 798-47295,

Goethe University has a strong background in research and is based in the European financial center of Frankfurt. Founded in 1914 with purely private funds by liberally-oriented Frankfurt citizens, it is dedicated to research and education under the motto "Science for Society" and to this day continues to function as a "citizens’ university". Many of the early benefactors were Jewish. Over the past 100 years, Goethe University has done pioneering work in the social and sociological sciences, chemistry, quantum physics, brain research and labour law. It gained a unique level of autonomy on 1 January 2008 by returning to its historic roots as a "foundation university". Today, it is among the top ten in external funding and among the top three largest universities in Germany, with three clusters of excellence in medicine, life sciences and the humanities.

Publisher: The President of Goethe University, Editor: Dr. Anne Hardy, Contact for Science Communications, Marketing and Communications Department, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 1, 60629 Frankfurt am Main, Phone: +49(0)69 798-12498, Fax: (069) 798-761 12531, hardy@pvw.uni-frankfurt.

Dr. Anne Hardy | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft

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