Superconductivity and flux quantization

This post continues my mini-series on Feynman’s Seminar on Superconductivity. Superconductivity is a state which produces many wondrous phenomena, but… Well… The flux quantization phenomenon may not be part of your regular YouTube feed but, as far as I am concerned, it may well be the most amazing manifestation of a quantum-mechanical phenomenon at a macroscopic scale. I mean… Super currents that keep going, with zero resistance, are weird—they explain how we can trap a magnetic flux in the first place—but the fact that such fluxes are quantized is even weirder.

The key idea is the following. When we cool a ring-shaped piece of superconducting material in a magnetic field, all the way down to the critical temperature that causes the electrons to condense into a superconducting fluid, then a super current will emerge—think of an eddy current, here, but with zero resistance—that will force the magnetic field out of the material, as shown below. This current will permanently trap some of the magnetic field, even when the external field is being removed. As said, that’s weird enough by itself but… Well… If we think of the super current as an eddy current encountering zero resistance, then the idea of a permanently trapped magnetic field makes sense, right? In case you’d doubt the effect… Well… Just watch one of the many videos on the effect on YouTube. 🙂 The amazing thing here is not the permanently trapped magnetic field, but the fact that it’s quantized.

trapped flux

To be precise, the trapped flux will always be an integer times 2πħ/q. In other words, the magnetic field which Feynman denotes by Φ (the capitalized Greek letter phi), will always be equal to:

Φ = 2πħ/q, with = 0, 1, 2, 3,…

Hence, the flux can be 0, 2πħ/q, 4πħ/q, 6πħ/q , and so on. The fact that it’s a multiple of 2π shows us it’s got to do with the fact that our piece of material is, effectively, a ring. The nice thing about this phenomenon is that the mathematical analysis is, in fact, fairly easy to follow—or… Well… Much easier than what we discussed before. 🙂 Let’s quickly go through it.

We have a formula for the magnetic flux. It must be equal to the line integral of the vector potential (A) around a closed loop Τ, so we write:

flux

Now, we can choose the loop Τ to be well inside the body of the ring, so that it never gets near the surface, as illustrated below. So we know that the current J is zero there. [In case you doubt this, see my previous post.]

curve

One of the equations we introduced in our previous post, ħθ = m·v + q·A, will then reduce to:

ħθ = q·A

Why? The v in the m·v term (the velocity of the superconducting fluid, really), is zero. Remember the analysis is for this particular loop (well inside the ring) only. So… Well… If we integrate the expression above, we get:

integral

Combining the two expressions with the integrals, we get:

integral 2Now, the line integral of a gradient from one point to another (say from point 1 to point 2) is the difference of the values of the function at the two points, so we can write:

integral 3

Now what constraints are there on the values of θ1 and θ2? Well… You might think that, if they’re associated with the same point (we’re talking a closed loop, right?), then the two values should be the same, but… Well… No. All we can say is that the wavefunction must have the same value. We wrote that wavefunction as:

ψ = ρ(r)1/2eθ(r)

The value of this function at some point r is the same if θ changes by 2π. Hence, when doing one complete turn around the ring, the ∫∇θ·ds integral in the integral formulas we wrote down must be equal to 2π. Therefore, the second integral expression above can be re-written as:

result

That’s the result we wanted to explain so… Well… We’re done. Let me wrap up by quoting Feynman’s account of the 1961 experiment which confirmed London’s prediction of the effect, which goes back to 1950! It’s interesting, because… Well… It shows how up to date Feynman’s Lectures really are—or were, back in 1963, at least!feynman overview of experiment

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