Scientists Find a Superconductor in Bits of Meteorite

The main mass of the Mundrabilla meteorite. Scientists found granules of superconducting material in a small Mundrabilla fragment.

The main mass of the Mundrabilla meteorite. Scientists found granules of superconducting material in a small Mundrabilla fragment.
Photo: Graeme Churchard (Wikimedia Commons)

According to a new study, scientists have detected traces of superconducting material in one of the world’s largest meteorites.

Superconductors are materials that can conduct electrical resistance without resistance, and they are coveted by researchers who study quantum computers and companies that hope so transfer energy more efficient. The superconductor in the Australian meteorite is a well-known material, but the discovery itself comes as a shock.

“The big takeaway is that there is naturally superconductivity in the air,” Ivan Schuller, one of the lead authors of the study at the University of California, San Diego, told Gizmodo.

Schuller’s team is not only interested in meteorites, they are looking for superconductivity everywhere. Six years ago, his team debuted a technique called magnetic field modulated microwave spectroscopy (MFMMS). The MFMMS method starts with scientists placing small sample fragments in a cavity filled with microwaves and an oscillating magnetic field, then cooling. When samples transition from conductors to superconductors, the way they absorb microwaves changes dramatically. The MFMMS method allows scientists to quickly scan through many materials to determine if they are superconductors or not.

And that is exactly what the researchers did here; they used a grant from the United States Air Force to search for superconductivity in all materials they could test. Given the extreme environments in which alien materials could form, meteorites were a natural place to look.

The team searched hundreds of meteorite samples: first microscopic meteorites and then larger fragments. Graduate student James Wampler has finally measured the superconducting transition in two meteorite fragments: one of the Mundrabilla Meteorite, one of the world’s largest meteorites with 22 tons of pieces scattered around the Earth Nullarbor plains in Australia, and one of a meteorite called GRA 95205. ThThe superconducting material was an alloy of indium, lead and tin, a material previously known as a superconductor for scientists. It is the first evidence of superconductivity in space.

This discovery was not an enchanting ‘eureka’ moment. Since the superconductor was a material already known on Earth, the scientists immediately wondered if they had accidentally contaminated the samples.

“I don’t remember the moment I found it,” Wampler told Gizmodo. “Your first reaction is that it makes you fake, it’s something else. It’s very cynical, not bad, but if you’re cynical, double check yourself.”

The team took their samples to scientists Yimei Zhu and Shaobo Cheng at Brookhaven National Lab to inspect them using electron microscopes. Only after that confirmation could they trust that they had actually discovered a naturally occurring superconductor from space. Wampler first presented his results at the March meeting of the American Physical Society in 2018, and the team published them peer-reviewed paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today.

Munir Humayun, a professor at Florida State University who reviewed the study, found it very interesting. He said the authors did a good job of excluding obvious sources of contamination, but still found it disturbing that we know that this alloy exists in synthetic forms on Earth. “The problem with non-obvious sources of contamination is that they are not obvious,” he told Gizmodo.

Still, “this paper is one of the shocking papers that make you go, whoa, we have to look at things we didn’t look at before,” said Humayun. ‘This document opens the door in a whole field of research into rare metals such as this indiumgazelead alloys previously unknown to meteorites. ”

It is difficult to say exactly how this alloy forms in space. The components of these meteorites are said to have undergone chemical changes during that period, such as heating and recrystallizationlarge system formation, obscuring the environment in which their materials were first formed. While this alloy is not a superconductor at room temperature on Earth, there are places colder than 5 degrees-Kelvin making it a superconductor. Plus the type of material in the GRA 95205 meteorite shows that it was formed under extreme conditions that may also have formed other superconducting materials.

If these alloys assumed superconducting properties in the cold of space, they might affect the magnetic fields around them and produce phenomena that may be visible to Earth-based telescopes. But these hypotheses require much more evidence, modeling and research before they contain water.

For the Schuller team, the discovery of a material already known on Earth does not help in their search for new superconductors. As such, they plan to continue using the MFMMS method to scan through other samples that may contain exciting new materials.

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