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Spirits are high for superconductivity research

Alcohol-induced superconductivity (Courtesy: Keita Deguchi)

By Michael Banks

When I was doing my PhD in condensed-matter physics, I remember seeing my colleagues nearly shedding tears after unsuccessfully spending months trying to make a single, small sample of a high-temperature superconductor.

The problem is that once a new superconductor – a material that exhibits zero electrical resistance when cooled below a certain temperature – is discovered then it takes only a few months before every conceivable experiment is performed on it. Time, as well as the quality of the sample, is everything.

So this morning I couldn’t help but raise a smile while skimming through the arXiv preprint server when I found a paper by researchers in Japan who have studied the effect of growing a new type of superconductor in “hot commercial alcohol drinks” such as red and white wine, beer, Japanese sake, whisky and shochu.

By heating powders of iron, tellurium and tellurium sulfide together at 600 °C they produced samples of FeTe0.8S0.2. But instead of performing experiments on these samples, they decided to put them into 20 ml glass bottles containing different alcoholic beverages.

They found that when they put the sample in an ethanol-water mixture, only around 10% of the material was superconducting below 6 K. But when it was dunked into whisky, sake or wine the superconducting fraction of the sample jumped. Red wine was found to be the highest with 63% of the sample exhibiting superconductivity. The researchers also saw a small increase in the superconducting temperature, with the red wine sample giving a superconducting temperature of 7.8 K.

Why this happens is unclear, but the researchers speculate that oxygen provided by the alcoholic drinks somehow gets into the bulk of the material and acts as a catalyst for the superconducting behaviour. The bigger question, though, is how the Japanese scientists got into the research in the first place. I haven’t asked but my guess is it originated after a trip to the local izakaya.

So can we expect other researchers to start dipping other samples into their favourite tipple? Maybe so – after all, back in 2008 scientists in Mexico grew small diamonds from tequila.

Whatever next?

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