Searching for energy superhighway superconductor

By Bill Burton, UIC News

Theoretical physicist Dirk Morr ponders unusual condensed matter materials which scientists hope will one day yield a high-temperature superconductor that could be used in an “energy superhighway” to transfer energy in the form of electricity over great distances without any losses.

“Power must be generated near where it’s used,” says Morr, professor of physics. But renewable sources are often remote. Wind power, for example, would be much more feasible if the electricity generated on huge “farms” could be transferred to cities without loss of energy. Unfortunately, the highest-temperature superconductor yet known works only below a chilly minus-160 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 2014, Morr’s group of theoretical physicists teamed up with experimentalists at Cornell University and Brookhaven National Laboratory to identify the “quantum glue” that underlies a promising type of superconductivity found in the unconventional superconductor CeCoIn5 consisting of Cerium, Cobalt and Indium.

The collaboration was “a beautiful example of how physics should work,” Morr said.

“Groundbreaking experimental data, combined with a new theorywe developed in my group , gave us a unprecedented insight to predict the properties of superconductors,” he said. The finding established once and for all that the magnetic interaction present in this material is the quantum glue that pairs electrons and gives rise to superconductivity.

This magnetic interaction, he noted, is highly directional.“Extracting the directional dependence of the quantum glue from the experimental data, we were able, for the first time, to quantitatively predict the material’s superconducting properties using a series of mathematical equations we had derived within our theory,” he said. The theoretical framework also gives scientists a starting point to explore how superconductivity works in other complex materials.

“With a working theory, we can now investigate how we have to tweak the system to raise the critical temperature — ideally, all the way up to room temperature,” he said.

As a University Scholar, Morr is continuing his research on strongly correlated electron systems, which will include spending three months in Germany at the Technical University in Dresden and at the University of Hamburg, and a couple of weeks at Harvard.

A graduate of Heidelberg University, Morr earned a master’s degree at the Free University of Berlin and a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, followed by post-doctoral work at Urbana-Champaign. He was a director’s fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for two years before coming to UIC in 2001. He is also an associate at the James Franck Institute at the University of Chicago.

Morr lives in Chicago’s Edgebrook neighborhood with his wife and their two children. He visits their classrooms to talk about science, and brings science enthusiasm to adult audiences as well. He gave a talk for the Chicago Council on Science and Technology on the “real science” behind “Star Trek,” and he helped create the new “Science Storms” exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago that opened in 2010.