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.”
People often cite the fact that ancient Greek and Roman winemakers burned sulfur to help preserve wine. It’s actually difficult to track down any real evidence (depending on what languages you read). So I have some secondary sources. I don’t have a translation of the primary sources, so I encourage you to continue researching and send me more information that you might find. I will gladly add it to this article.
I saw a lot of articles about the history of sulfites in wine in which the author would allude to ancient use of sulfur burning many many times without citing a source. So I put a call out on Twitter.
While @ElieSl did some research in French and found sources that reject the claim that ancients definitely sulfured their wines. The author insists that the first explicit mention of the use of sulfur fumigation in wine was in a 1487 German decree that authorized the burning of sulfured wood chips inside of wine barrels.
La première mention explicite de son usage dans la vinification remonte à un décret royal allemand de 1487. il autorisait les vignerons à brûler des copeaux de bois soufrés dans les tonneaux utilisés pour conserver le vin.
@ZevRobinson had the good sense to redirect my question specifically to @Vintuition of the Fine Wine Academy.
Here’s his answer with a secondary source:
@mroconnell @zevrobinson Re. sulphur fumigation | On application of the fumarium [sulphur fumes] by Romans see Ch 4 (4) http://bit.ly/gTODA1
Admittedly, this book seems to be from a trade press. And what’s more, an evangelical trade press… so it’s open to debate, but the passage in chapter IV of “Wine in the Bible” specifically addresses my question and cites references to primary and secondary sources:
Ancient Use of Sulphur. The use of sulphur to preserve wine was known in the ancient world. In a chapter devoted to various methods used to preserve wine, Pliny speaks of Cato who “mentions sulphur.”81 Horace alludes to this practice in a poem dedicated to the celebration of a glad anniversary: “This festal day, each time the year revolves, shall draw a well-pitched cork forth from a jar set to drink the smoke in Tullus’ consulship.”82 The next stanza suggests that this fumigated wine was unfermented, because a hundred cups of it could be drunk without causing “clamor et ira,” that is, “brawls and anger.”83
In his book on Roman Antiquities, T. S. Carr says that “the application of the fumarium [sulphur fumes] to the mellowing of wines was borrowed from the Asiatics; and thus exhalation would go on until the wine was reduced to the state of syrup.”84 In its comment on this statement, John Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature says: “When the Mishna forbids smoked wines from being used in offerings (Manachoth, viii. 6, et comment.), it has chiefly reference to the Roman practice of fumigating them with sulphur, the vapor of which absorbed the oxygen, and thus arrested the fermentation. The Jews carefully eschewed the wines and vinegar of the Gentiles.”85
Those numbers are all footnotes:
- 81. Pliny, Natural History 14, 25, 129.
- 82. Horace, Carminum Liber 3, 8, 9-12.
- 83. Ibid., 3, 8, 6.
- 84. Cited by John Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, 1845 edition, s. v. “Wine,” vol. 2, p. 956.
- 85. Ibid.
I will try to look these up later when I have some time. The Pliny checks out but is a very casual reference to the effect of “Cato says winemakers do this, that and the other thing. Oh and Cato mentioned something about sulfur too.” A light reference, but a solid one.
Otherwise, feel free to do your own research and send it in!!