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Able to stop stray electrons in a single bound, superinsulating materials could yield a huge benefit for the electronics industry.

Most people are now familiar with the term “superconductor” -- a material which possesses practically no resistance to electricity, theoretically able to sustain a closed system indefinitely without external power. Unfortunately, there are presently no known superconductors that work at room temperature, most only at a few degrees above absolute zero.

Superinsulators are not something one often reads about. There were no known such materials, in fact, until researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory produced one. A superinsulator, just as it sounds, works in exactly the opposite manner as a superconductor – very minimal to no current will pass through it.

The researchers found that a certain material, a thin film of titanium nitride, experienced a resistance increase of 100,000 percent as its temperature or the external magnetic field dropped below a certain threshold. Led by Valerii Vinokur of Argonne and Russian scientist Tatyana Baturina, the group of scientists used a dilution refrigerator to cool the sheet to near absolute zero temperature to make their observations.

Interestingly, the gimmick to superinsulators is virtually the same as for superconductors, relying on electron pairing known as Cooper pairs. These stable electron pairs form long chains in superconductors, allowing the near infinitely free flow of current. Conversely, in superinsulators, the Cooper pairs instead of linking together remain completely independent, thus inhibiting the flow of current nearly infinitely.

The group found that the difference between superconducting and superinsulating materials in this case is dependent on the thickness of the film. Several materials aside from titanium nitride also act in this manner, though none at room temperature.

In the future, superconducting and superinsulating materials could be combined to create a perfect theoretical self-sustaining circuit, high current transmission lines with no leakage, or high performance batteries just to name a few. A viable material with acceptable production costs would likely harbinger a revolution in electrical devices of all kinds and industries.

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RE: Solid, Liquid, Gas....
By pnyffeler on 4/10/2008 12:13:18 PM , Rating: 5
I can't really comment on whether a superinsulator would really be a "new" state of matter, but a superconductor clearly was.

Matter is composed of atoms, which are positively charged nuclei about which negatively-charged electrons circle in something akin to orbits of a planet. Atoms are pushed apart from one another (i.e. won't invade each other's space) because of the negative-negative repulsion of the electrons.

The orbit analogy of electrons is a misnomer. In fact, due to the bizarre effects of quantum mechanics, the "orbits" are actually standing waves, much like that in a resonating guitar string, except they are spherical and never die out.

With superconducting materials, as you cool the atoms, they end up having so little energy that they stop repulsing each other and come close enough that each atom's electron "orbits" overlap. When this happens, instead of crashing into one another, the orbit waves combine and add to one another. In this state, it is no longer a solid, liquid, or gas, but something more dense than a solid with crazy properties.

It's the combination of the electron orbitals that make the materials superconducting. Because an electron within an orbital/wave is moving at (almost) the speed of light, it can travel almost instantly from one end of the material to the other with no resistance. In effect, the electrons no longer "belong" to one atom, but instead are everywhere at once along the superconducting material.

I've never read about the superinsulator stuff, but it would appear that the same phenomenon is happening, except the coalescing waves are arranged in such a way that the electrons can never travel through the whole material. In other words, it's probable that superconducting and superinsulating materials are technically the same state of matter, with the distance between atom nuclei being smaller than orbital electron repulsion should classically allow, except in one, the coalesced electron waves allow free travel throughout the medium, while the other completely inhibits it.

Hope that makes sense...

RE: Solid, Liquid, Gas....
By JoshuaBuss on 4/10/2008 1:51:25 PM , Rating: 2
my understanding of what's going on leads me to believe you've hit the nail on the head. good post.

RE: Solid, Liquid, Gas....
By pnyffeler on 4/10/2008 3:48:54 PM , Rating: 2
I knew this Ph.D. would come in handy one day... :-)

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