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Ironing Out Consensus on the Iron-Based Superconductors

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Science  12 Mar 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5971, pp. 1320-1321
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5971.1320

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The first superconductors—materials that carry electricity without any resistance—were discovered in 1911. Half a century passed before physicists figured out how metals such as niobium perform that mind-bending feat at a few degrees above absolute zero. In 1986, researchers discovered complex compounds containing copper and oxygen that become superconductors at much higher "critical temperatures"—now as high as 138 kelvin. Twenty-four years later, such "high-temperature superconductivity" remains the biggest puzzle in condensed-matter physics. In February 2008, materials scientists reported the first iron-based superconductor. Using tools honed on the copper-and-oxygen superconductors, or "cuprates," they have made measurements that took decades to achieve in the older materials. Most important, although physicists cannot say exactly how the iron-based superconductors work, they have developed a scheme that many say captures the essence of what's going on. In fact, the emerging portrait of the iron-based superconductors jibes with some theories of the cuprates and seems to undermine more-exotic alternatives. So if physicists are on the right track with the iron-based superconductors, then the cuprates may not be so inscrutable after all.