Johannes “Georg” Bednorz was a fresh-faced earth sciences student in 1972 when he spent three months working at IBM’s research laboratory in Zurich. The summer break from undergraduate studies turned out to be an important inflection point. It’s when he met Alex Müller. A decade later, the two men would begin collaborating on pioneering materials research that continues to shape our modern world.
Together they made seminal advancements in the study of high-temperature superconductors, often referred to as HTS, discovering materials with the ability to radically improve the power and efficiency of electrical transmission. Their work opened the door to numerous commercial applications — from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and high-speed rail to lighter, smaller wind turbines and more efficient smart energy grids.
The duo’s research garnered them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1987.
Bednorz was born in Neuenkirchen in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, in 1950, the youngest of four children. He was raised by Anton Bednorz, an elementary school teacher, and Elisabeth, a piano teacher, both of whom had fled Central Europe during World War II. Bednorz recollected on his upbringing in his autobiography, which was published in the Nobel Lectures: “My parents, originating in Silesia, had lost sight of each other during the turbulences of World War II, when my sister and two brothers had to leave home and were moved westwards. I was a latecomer, completing our family after its joyous reunion in 1949.”
Bednorz’s parents nudged their son to pursue classical music, but he harbored a greater passion for motorcycle and automobile mechanics. In high school, he developed an interest in natural sciences, primarily chemistry, but his mentors also encouraged him to appreciate the humanities. “At school,” he noted, “it was our teacher of arts who cultivated that practical sense and helped to develop creativity and team spirit within the class community, inspiring us to theater and artistic performance even outside school hours.”
Bednorz enrolled at the University of Münster in 1968 to study chemistry but shifted to crystallography, a subfield of mineralogy that blends chemistry and physics. His teachers arranged his summer internship at IBM in 1972, which led to subsequent periods with the company during graduate studies. “I soon was impressed by the freedom even I as a student was given to work on my own, learning from mistakes and thus losing the fear of approaching new problems in my own way,” he wrote. His future wife, Mechthild Wennemer, joined him in a move to Zurich, where they both pursued their doctorates. “Since then,” he said, “she has acted as a stabilizing element in my life and is the best adviser for all decisions I make, sharing the ups and downs in an unselfish way.”
Bednorz earned his doctorate in 1982 from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, under the tutelage of Müller and Professor Heini Gränicher. The same year, Müller, then director of the lab’s physics division, brought him on staff at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory.
Grasping the accomplishments of Bednorz and Müller requires first understanding a bit of foundational superconductivity research. In 1911, Dutch scientist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes had discovered a process thought to be the closest approximation to a naturally occurring perpetual motion machine. He found that superconductivity, or zero electrical resistance, could be achievable when certain alloys were cooled close to absolute zero — in his case, 4.19 Kelvin for liquid mercury. (Absolute zero is 0 Kelvin (K), -273 degrees Celsius (C), or -459 degrees Fahrenheit (F).) In subsequent decades, superconductivity was found in lead at 7 K, in niobium at 10 K, and in niobium nitride at 16 K.
For the next three-quarters of a century, researchers made little progress in their hunt for compounds that could serve as superconductors at more practical temperatures. Their best effort peaked at 23 K with another niobium-based material.
The return of Bednorz to IBM, and an intense collaboration with Müller, greatly accelerated progress. The duo focused on a class of oxides known as perovskites. To obtain a chemically stable material, they added barium to crystals of lanthanum-copper-oxide to produce a ceramic. It eventually became the first HTS. The revelation was initially greeted with skepticism because ceramics were generally considered insulators, not conductors. But the new material withstood repeated tests to demonstrate superconductivity at 35 K.
It was a significant finding because 35 K requires far less cooling with liquid helium (4.2 K), a very limited resource. It also represented a significant leap toward 77 K. At that point, superconductors can be cooled with liquid nitrogen, which it’s possible to condense from air using refrigeration techniques — making the entire process easier and less expensive. The discovery opened a whole field of research into what is considered something of a holy grail in physics: room-temperature superconductivity.
In January 1986, Müller and Bednorz’s discovery unleashed a flurry of activity among physicists who imagined new applications in electrotechnology and microelectronics. “We both realized the importance of our discovery,” recalled Bednorz, “but were surprised by the dramatic development and changes in both the field of science and our personal lives.” Within a year, several groups had prepared their own versions of the IBM compound and reported similar results. By March 1987, thousands of scientists and engineers were researching other versions of the new class of oxide superconductors in hopes of unlocking more applications.
Before long, scientists had found materials that achieved superconductivity at 77 K — the key threshold for using liquid nitrogen. “This discovery is quite recent, less than two years old,” said Gösta Ekspong of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in late 1987, “but it has already stimulated research and development throughout the world to an unprecedented extent.”
The fevered activity peaked at the March 1987 American Physical Society meeting in New York. Dubbed the “Woodstock of Physics,” the event counted more than 50 scientists presenting discoveries that achieved dramatically higher superconductivity temperatures than ever before. Müller and Bednorz were honored that same year with the Nobel Prize. It was the shortest elapsed time ever between a discovery and the award for any scientific Nobel. Bednorz was subsequently named an IBM Fellow, the company’s highest technical achievement.
The quest to fully harness the potential of high-temperature superconductors continues, with a primary focus on electric power transmission, high-speed rail and other novel modes of frictionless transportation such as magnetic levitation trains. In 2020, a team of physicists in New York published research about a novel compound of hydrogen, carbon and sulfur that, when compressed to extreme pressure, operates as a superconductor at up to 59 degrees Fahrenheit. The next step is to discover a compound that behaves similarly under normal atmospheric pressure.
Meanwhile, scientists and engineers are testing how high-temperature semiconductors can improve the energy efficiency of power cables. Nearly every hospital now employs magnetic resonance imaging scanners (commonly known as MRIs) using small superconducting coils to produce a rotating magnetic field that creates detailed images of the human body. Some countries are even testing trains that use onboard magnets to levitate vehicles above steel rails, potentially making trains much faster and more efficient.
“HTS will impact all aspects of energy infrastructure,” said Bednorz, who is now retired, in the journal Nature Reviews Materials. “HTS has the potential to develop into the key technology of the 21st century.”
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