|Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....|
|Home Electricity Circuits Superconductors|
|Search the VIAS Library | Index|
All materials display some variation in resistance according to temperature (a fact that is used in thermostats to make a thermometer that can be easily interfaced to an electric circuit). More spectacularly, most metals have been found to exhibit a sudden change to zero resistance when cooled to a certain critical temperature. They are then said to be superconductors. Theoretically, superconductors should make a great many exciting devices possible, for example coiled-wire magnets that could be used to levitate trains. In practice, the critical temperatures of all metals are very low, and the resulting need for extreme refrigeration has made their use uneconomical except for such specialized applications as particle accelerators for physics research.
But scientists have recently made the surprising discovery that certain ceramics are superconductors at less extreme temperatures. The technological barrier is now in finding practical methods for making wire out of these brittle materials. Wall Street is currently investing billions of dollars in developing superconducting devices for cellular phone relay stations based on these materials. In 2001, the city of Copenhagen replaced a short section of its electrical power trunks with superconducing cables, and they are now in operation and supplying power to customers.
There is currently no satisfactory theory of superconductivity in general, although superconductivity in metals is understood fairly well. Unfortunately I have yet to find a fundamental explanation of superconductivity in metals that works at the introductory level.
Constant voltage throughout a conductor
The idea of a superconductor leads us to the question of how we should expect an object to behave if it is made of a very good conductor. Superconductors are an extreme case, but often a metal wire can be thought of as a perfect conductor, for example if the parts of the circuit other than the wire are made of much less conductive materials. What happens if R equals zero in the equation R=ΔV/I? The result of dividing two numbers can only be zero if the number on top equals zero. This tells us that if we pick any two points in a perfect conductor, the voltage difference between them must be zero. In other words, the entire conductor must be at the same voltage.
Constant voltage means that no work would be done on a charge as it moved from one point in the conductor to another. If zero work was done only along a certain path between two specific points, it might mean that positive work was done along part of the path and negative work along the rest, resulting in a cancellation. But there is no way that the work could come out to be zero for all possible paths unless the electrical force on a charge was in fact zero at every point. Suppose, for example, that you build up a static charge by scuffing your feet on a carpet, and then you deposit some of that charge onto a doorknob, which is a good conductor. How can all that charge be in the doorknob without creating any electrical force at any point inside it? The only possible answer is that the charge moves around until it has spread itself into just the right configuration so that the forces exerted by all the little bits of excess surface charge on any charged particle within the doorknob exactly canceled out.
We can explain this behavior if we assume that the charge placed on the doorknob eventually settles down into a stable equilibrium. Since the doorknob is a conductor, the charge is free to move through it. If it was free to move and any part of it did experience a nonzero total force from the rest of the charge, then it would move, and we would not have an equilibrium.
It also turns out that charge placed on a conductor, once it reaches its equilibrium configuration, is entirely on the surface, not on the interior. We will not prove this fact formally, but it is intuitively reasonable. Suppose, for instance, that the net charge on the conductor is negative, i.e. it has an excess of electrons. These electrons all repel each other, and this repulsion will tend to push them onto the surface, since being on the surface allows them to be as far apart as possible.
So far we have been assuming a perfect conductor. What if it is a good conductor, but not a perfect one? Then we can solve for ΔV=IR. An ordinary-sized current will make a very small result when we multiply it by the resistance of a good conductor such as a metal wire. The voltage throughout the wire will then be nearly constant. If, on the other hand, the current is extremely large, we can have a significant voltage difference. This is what happens in a short-circuit: a circuit in which a low-resistance pathway connects the two sides of a voltage source. Note that this is much more specific than the popular use of the term to indicate any electrical malfunction at all. If, for example, you short-circuit a 9-volt battery as shown in the figure, you will produce perhaps a thousand amperes of current, leading to a very large value of P=IΔV. The wire gets hot!
|Home Electricity Circuits Superconductors|