Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Local high school student conducts superconductor research with Randolph physics professor

With the help of a Randolph College physics professor, a Local high school student is researching ways superconductors could help planes take off from aircraft carriers more quickly.

Sam Lee, a student at the Central Virginia Governor’s School for Science and Technology, became interested in the idea after seeing an online video that demonstrated how some materials, when dropped to extremely low temperatures, have no electrical resistance and repel magnetism. This can cause a superconductor to actually float over a source of magnetism.

Peter Sheldon, a Randolph physics professor who has worked with superconductors before, volunteered to help Lee design a research project related to those interests.

At first, Lee was interested in perpetual motion. Then he thought about using superconductors to actually propel an aircraft. He said Sheldon helped him zero in on a more plausible idea: levitating aircraft.

“If the airplane is levitating, there will not be any friction,” Lee said. “It would have a shorter take off distance, and will take off in shorter time.”

To know whether that idea could work, Sheldon and Lee are testing to see how the resistance caused by magnetic forces compares to the resistance caused by friction. Lee is using a puck made of YBCO (Yittrium Barium Copper Oxide). He uses liquid nitrogen to drop the puck to 77 Kelvin, or -196 degrees Celsius, at which point the puck demonstrates superconductor properties. Lee then allows the puck to levitate and travel across a magnetic track at various inclines and records the velocity at the end of the track.

Lee plans to finish taking data this week, after which he and Sheldon will compare the actual velocity to what velocity would be expected in an environment without any resistance.

After cooled in liquid nitrogen, this puck made of the superconductor YBCO will float over a magnetic track
“There is damping force, but it’s almost equal to zero,” Lee said, based on preliminary observations.

Lee said he has enjoyed working with Sheldon on his first real research project. Sheldon, who also directs Randolph’s Center for Student Research, is pleased to see a high school student getting hands-on experience with scientific research.

“The best way to learn science is to do science,” Sheldon said. “Getting involved with research early and often is really important in getting students engaged in science.

“By having the opportunity to do research at the college level while he’s in high school, Sam can see what kinds of resources we can have in a college and get a glimpse of the kind of things that he can do when he gets to college.”