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September 10, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Science: What’s It Up To?

Quantum Levitation. It’s a thing, bitches.

It doesn’t take long before living in cold Wellington flats gets pretty lame. Well being cold anywhere isn’t really fun, unless you’re carving first tracks through fresh powder on a still, sunny day. But some cool shit happens when it gets cold. I mean really cold, like colder than a penguin after chilling out in Antarctica for winter.

When you get close to absolute zero (-273.15°C), a temperature where molecules stop moving, something super sweet happens with conductors. A phenomenon known as superconductivity is basically like normal conductivity, but way more badass with the super- prefix. Resistance drops to zero in superconductors, which means that unlike normal copper wires, you can conduct electricity without any loss. It’s kind of like a tertiary bank account where you don’t get charged for transactions or overdraft.

Time for a brief history lesson before we get into the rad shit superconductors can do. The Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes first discovered them in 1911. He was playing with mercury cooled by liquid hydrogen when he noticed that the resistance dropped abruptly at 4.2K (-268.95°C) to absolutely zero. He won a Nobel Prize for his efforts but, due to the difficulties in keeping stuff so cold, not much happened for a few years. It wasn’t until the discovery of ‘high temperature’ superconductors in the ‘80s that we started to learn about all the cool shit they can do.

With superconductors made out of ceramics you only need to keep them at about 90K (-183.15°C) for them to work. So you
can use liquid nitrogen, which is easier and cheaper to get. This made experiments with superconductors way easier, and now 100-level physics students can pretend to have super powers by levitating magnets in labs.

Yep that’s right levitation isn’t just for sci-fi films, it really exists. Superconductors expel all magnetic fields so without going into the complex physics it means that you can lock magnets in place and levitate them. They’re so powerful that you could theoretically levitate a car on a 2mm thick superconductor the diameter of a coffee cup. You’d just have to put the air-con on really low.

They’re also used in MRI scanners to check out your brain, mass spectrometers, and used to steer particle beams in particle accelerators like CERN which discovered the Higgs particle.

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