I love it when cool science labs stray into the world of wine just enough for me to write about them. Finally an excuse to let my inner lab geek roam free on this blog.
Some superconductivity researchers in Japan were getting a little tipsy after successfully running a lab in which they measured the superconductivity of antiferromagnetic compounds soaked in water, ethanol and a mixture of the two. They had a variety of commercial alcohols at their party and thought it would be cool to run the test with all the booze at hand. Or so the story goes. The official lab report on “Superconductivity in FeTe1-xSx induced by alcohol” is a little bit drier.
But both versions of the story end with an amazing conclusion:
“We found that hot commercial alcohol drinks are much effective to induce superconductivity in FeTe0.8S0.2 compared to water, ethanol and water-ethanol mixture.”
“We found that the superconducting volume fraction of the Red wine sample is the largest.”
Awesome. They don’t know why. They have some ideas. I’ve got some too.
But this is really just a stepping stone. Now other labs can try to recreate the results with different kinds of red wine to try to figure out what parts of red wine facilitate the induction of superconductivity.
What the hell is superconductivity?
Incidentally, some of you are probably wondering what the hell superconductivity is. Well, oversimplified explanation: materials that conduct electricity have a certain level of resistance which might be raised or lowered by changing the temperature (colder environment means less resistance). Superconductivity is achieved by lowering this resistance to zero. This is crazy because conventional conductors like copper never reach zero resistance (even in absolute zero, the coldest temperature possible). But some materials like the iron compound used in this lab can reach zero resistance at relatively high temperatures.
What the hell does the wine have to do with it?
It’s going to get a little more complicated here, so you might just want to skip this section. You’re all familiar with ferromagnetics. That’s just when iron (or some other compounds) are attracted to a magnet. It’s the most easily observed magnetic force in the world. And on an atomic level, it happens because neighboring electrons spin in the same direction and their magnetic fields combine to form a strong magnetic field. Well, there’s a thing referred to as antiferromagnetism that is (huge oversimplification bordering on misrepresentation!!) a different kind of magnetic order where electrons start spinning in different directions than their neighboring electrons. The individual power of each electron’s magnetic field is as powerful as in ferromagnetism, but because they’re all going in opposite directions, they cancel eachother out and you can’t feel the force the same way as you can feel ferromagnets.
FeTe, at low temperatures will exhibit antiferromagnetism. And here’s a tricky part. The scientists figured out that if you suppress that antiferromagnetism by substituting the Tellurium with something else (a dopant like Sulfur), then the compound freaks out and becomes a superconductor (I am butchering science here; sorry).
Anyway, the key is to substitute the Te with some S. But this is hard to do in open air. It’s more successful when the compound is immersed in water. And it’s even more successful when the compound is immersed in wine. Could it have to do with the free sulfur in wine? Could it be related to the ease with which wine oxidizes? Send them a pallet of wine and they will let you know the results.
Why are they wasting red wine?
I promise it’s totally worth it. Superconductors allow us to make really powerful magnets (the kind in MRI machines and particle accelerators) and there would be lots of other applications if we could induce superconductivity less expensively in the future.
So how much of China’s wine production will get imbibed and how much will go to powering crazy futuristic flying trains and building space elevators? Only the future can tell. All we know for now is that scientists are ridiculous (and awesome). And that there’s some kind of a joke to make here about … hmm.. lemme see.. “Scientists finally prove that wine lowers resistance to zero, something I have known for a long long time.”