Scientists at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs create the world's first plastic superconductor

Microelectronics International

ISSN: 1356-5362

Article publication date: 1 December 2001




(2001), "Scientists at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs create the world's first plastic superconductor", Microelectronics International, Vol. 18 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited

Scientists at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs create the world's first plastic superconductor

Scientists at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs create the world's first plastic superconductor

Keyword: Lucent Technologies

Scientists from Bell Labs, the research and development arm of Lucent Technologies (NYSE:LU), have created the world's first plastic material in which resistance to the flow of electricity vanishes below a certain temperature, making it a superconductor. The plastic, described in Nature magazine, is an inexpensive material that could be widely used in the future for applications such as quantum computing and superconducting electronics.

The Bell Labs breakthrough comes after a 20-year quest to find organic polymers that act as superconductors. Organic polymers are chemical molecules that contain a long string of carbon atoms and make versatile plastics. While organic polymers that conduct electricity have been around since the 1970s – last year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for instance, went to the researchers who discovered plastic conductors, which are organic materials that have some resistance to the flow of electricity – creating a superconducting organic polymer proved to be far more difficult.

"This is stunning and truly beautiful work, and opens new vistas for coming studies", said Professor Olle Inganas of Linkoping University in Sweden, who is an authority in the field of organic materials.

The Bell Labs breakthrough was made possible by a multidisciplinary team of researchers, whose backgrounds range from experimental low-temperature physics to materials science and organic chemistry. It "emphasizes that interdisciplinary work, involving both synthetic chemistry and condensed-matter physics, will advance the frontiers of both fields", said Denis Jerome at the Universite Paris-Sud, Orsay, France, and Klaus Bechgaard at Ris0 National Laboratory, Denmark, in a commentary in the same issue of Nature.

The challenge in creating a plastic superconductor was overcoming the inherent structural randomness of a polymer – similar to strands of cooked spaghetti – which prevented the electronic interactions necessary for superconductivity. The Bell Labs scientists were able to overcome this by making a solution containing the plastic, polythiophene. They then deposited thin films of it onto an underlying layer so that the polymer molecules stacked up against one another like uncooked spaghetti. Instead of adding chemical impurities to change the material's electrical properties, as is often done, the researchers used a novel technique in which they removed electrons from polythiophene.

The temperature below which polythiophene became superconducting was minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit. Although this is extremely cold, scientists are optimistic that they can raise the temperature in the future by altering the molecular structure of the polymer.

Polythiophene, which can be a conductor at room temperatures and which has been used previously in making optoelectronic components and smart pixels, may be the first of many superconducting plastics.

"With the method we used, many organic materials may potentially be made superconducting now", said Zhenan Bao, a Bell Labs chemist who was involved in the research.

Bell Labs scientists plan to study the inter-relationships between semiconducting, superconducting and molecular electronics with materials such as polythiophene in the coming months.

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