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....


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.

A superconducting segment of the ATLAS accelerator at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. It is used to accelerate beams of ions to a few percent of the speed of light for nuclear physics reasearch. The shiny silver-colored surfaces are made of the element niobium, which is a superconductor at relatively high temperatures compared to other metals - relatively high meaning the temperature of liquid helium! The beam of ions passes through the holes in the two small cylinders on the ends of the curved rods. Charge is shuffled back and forth between them at a frequency of 12 million cycles per second, so that they take turns being positive and negative. The positively charged beam consists of short spurts, each timed so that when it is in one of the segments it will be pulled forward by negative charge on the cylinder in front of it and pushed forward by the positively charged one behind. The huge currents involved would quickly melt any metal that was not superconducting, but in a superconductor they produce no heat at all. My own PhD thesis was based on data from this accelerator.

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.

Short circuits

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!

Shortcircuiting a battery. Warning: you can burn yourself this way or start a fire! If you want to try this, try making the connection only very briefly, use a lowvoltage battery, and avoid touching the battery or the wire, both of which will get hot.

Self-Check What would happen to the battery in this kind of short circuit?
Answer The large amount of power means a high rate of conversion of the battery's chemical energy into heat. The battery will quickly use up all its energy, i.e. "burn out."

Discussion Questions

A In figure (b), would it make any difference in the voltage measurement if we touched the voltmeter's probes to different points along the same segments of wire?
B Explain why it would be incorrect to define resistance as the amount of charge the resistor allows to flow.

Last Update: 2010-11-11