Inside this chamber, powerful lasers vaporize solid materials. But this isn’t just wanton destruction – the vaporized particles of iron, tellurium, and selenium are then recollected layer-by-layer to form high-performance superconductors.
This technique—called pulsed-laser deposition—is a bit like collecting the steam as it rises from a pot and letting it condense into a layer nearly as thin as a single atom. The resulting materials can be used in everything from particle accelerators to offshore wind turbines.
It’s worth going through this extremely difficult process because new superconductors can outdo other energy carriers in a big way. Traditional household circuit breakers usually blow when they hit just 20 amps, but in recent tests, the maximum electric current carried in some of our new superconductors reached more than 1 million amps per square centimeter, which is several hundred times more than copper wires can carry over the same area.
And it’s not just about high current. In hospital MRIs, electricity generates the powerful magnetic fields needed to image the body. If the magnetic tolerance of the superconducting wires inside MRIs is not exceptionally high, the superconductivity shuts down and the entire device fails. Fortunately, the superconducting films grown inside this chamber remained functional even under an intense 30-tesla magnetic field, and most hospital MRIs require just 1-3 tesla.
The short of it? These record-breaking materials work really well.