Switzerland: death of the pioneer of high temperature superconductivity

AFP, published Tuesday, January 17, 2023 at 2:59 p.m

The Swiss physicist Karl Alexander Müller, who received the Nobel Prize in 1987 for his work on high-temperature superconductivity, has died at the age of 95.

He died on January 9, according to the obituary of his relatives and his research laboratory IBM Research published in the Tages-Anzeiger, reports the Swiss news agency ATS.

The native of Basel, who taught primarily at the University of Zurich, fell asleep peacefully after bearing his last bit of life with “perseverance and optimism,” writes the family.

Karl Alex Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1987 together with the German Georg Bednorz, with whom he worked at the Zurich research laboratory IBM Research, “for their important breakthrough in the discovery of superconductivity in ceramic materials”.

One of the most spectacular phenomena in physics, superconductivity – the ability to perfectly conduct electricity without resistance – has been known since 1911, when Dutch physicist Heile Kammerlingh-Omnes discovered that a strand of mercury cooled in liquid helium conducts electricity infinitely better at around -270°C.

Initially limited to temperatures below -250 °C, superconductivity received new impetus with the discovery of new materials, copper oxides or cuprates, in 1986 by Karl Alex Müller and Georg Bednorz, superconductors at -238 °C. This advance will earn them the Nobel Prize just a year later.

“1986 was an exciting year for science in Zurich. It all started with a seemingly absurd idea that K. Alex Müller, then an IBM researcher and professor at the University of Zurich, had at a conference in Sicily,” said the University of Zurich on Tuesday after announcing his death on its online page.

Superconductivity has many applications today: maglev trains, MRI imaging, particle accelerators, power plants, etc.

Since the discovery in 1986, other researchers have developed an alloy that becomes superconducting from -140°C, the highest temperature to date, the University of Zurich emphasizes.

These higher temperatures have the major benefit that superconductivity can be achieved by cooling with liquid nitrogen rather than liquid helium, making engineering applications much easier and less expensive, she said.