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Theory of Superconductors

Theory of Superconductors

A successful theory of superconductivity was developed in the 1950s by John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and J. Robert Schrieffer, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1972. This theory is known as the BCS theory. BCS theory is complex, so we summarize it qualitatively below.

In a normal conductor, the electrical properties of the material are due to the most energetic electrons near the Fermi energy. In 1956, Cooper showed that if there is any attractive interaction between two electrons at the Fermi level, then the electrons can form a bound state in which their total energy is less than \(2{E}_{\text{F}}\). Two such electrons are known as a Cooper pair.

It is hard to imagine two electrons attracting each other, since they have like charge and should repel. However, the proposed interaction occurs only in the context of an atomic lattice. A depiction of the attraction is shown in this figure. Electron 1 slightly displaces the positively charged atomic nuclei toward itself as it travels past because of the Coulomb attraction. Electron 2 “sees” a region with a higher density of positive charge relative to the surroundings and is therefore attracted into this region and, therefore indirectly, to electron 1. Because of the exclusion principle, the two electrons of a Cooper pair must have opposite spin.

A grid containing 25 red dots is shown. There are 5 columns and 5 rows, each connected by a lattice frame in the background. There is a point between 4 of the dots labeled electron 1, where an arrow comes from each surrounding dot, then another arrow points upward. 2 rows below, another point is labeled electron 2 and has an arrow also pointing upward.

A Cooper pair can form as a result of the displacement of positive atomic nuclei. Electron 1 slightly displaces the positively charged atomic nuclei toward itself as it travels past because of the Coulomb attraction. Electron 2 “sees” a region with a higher density of positive charge relative to the surroundings and is therefore attracted into this region.

The BCS theory extends Cooper’s ideas, which are for a single pair of electrons, to the entire free electron gas. When the transition to the superconducting state occurs, all the electrons pair up to form Cooper pairs. On an atomic scale, the distance between the two electrons making up a Cooper pair is quite large. Between these electrons are typically about \({10}^{6}\) other electrons, each also pairs with a distant electron. Hence, there is considerable overlap between the wave functions of the individual Cooper pairs, resulting in a strong correlation among the motions of the pairs. They all move together “in step,” like the members of a marching band. In the superconducting transition, the density of states becomes drastically changed near the Fermi level. As shown in this figure, an energy gap appears around \({E}_{F}\) because the collection of Cooper pairs has lower ground state energy than the Fermi gas of noninteracting electrons. The appearance of this gap characterizes the superconducting state. If this state is destroyed, then the gap disappears, and the density of states reverts to that of the free electron gas.

Graph of g in parentheses E versus E. The plot starts from the origin and curves up and right. Two vertical lines are shown on the graph. The distance between them is labeled energy gap. The y value of the curve is very high just before and after the gap. The x value of the center of the gap is E subscript F. The area bounded under the curve to the left of the gap is shaded.

A relatively large energy gap is formed around the Fermi energy when a material becomes superconducting. If this state is destroyed, then the gap disappears, and the density of states reverts to that of the free electron gas.

The BCS theory is able to predict many of the properties observed in superconductors. Examples include the Meissner effect, the critical temperature, the critical field, and, perhaps most importantly, the resistivity becoming zero at a critical temperature. We can think about this last phenomenon qualitatively as follows. In a normal conductor, resistivity results from the interaction of the conduction electrons with the lattice. In this interaction, the energy exchanged is on the order of \({k}_{\text{B}}T,\) the thermal energy. In a superconductor, electric current is carried by the Cooper pairs. The only way for a lattice to scatter a Cooper pair is to break it up. The destruction of one pair then destroys the collective motion of all the pairs. This destruction requires energy on the order of \({10}^{-3}\text{eV}\), which is the size of the energy gap. Below the critical temperature, there is not enough thermal energy available for this process, so the Cooper pairs travel unimpeded throughout the superconductor.

Finally, it is interesting to note that no evidence of superconductivity has been found in the best normal conductors, such as copper and silver. This is not unexpected, given the BCS theory. The basis for the formation of the superconducting state is an interaction between the electrons and the lattice. In the best conductors, the electron-lattice interaction is weakest, as evident from their minimal resistivity. We might expect then that in these materials, the interaction is so weak that Cooper pairs cannot be formed, and superconductivity is therefore precluded.

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