J. Georg Bednorz: 1987 - Physics

Georg Bednorz
Georg Bednorz

Year & Category

1987 Nobel Prize in Physics (jointly with K. Alexander Müller, Switzerland)

Prize motivation

"For their important breakthrough in the discovery of superconductivity in ceramic materials"

At the time of the award he worked at

IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, Rüschlikon, Switzerland

About his research

An unusual approach made Georg Bednorz a pioneer in the field of superconductivity – and Physics Nobel Prize laureate in 1987.
During the mid-1980s, Georg Bednorz and Alex Müller, who was also head of their research group at the IBM Laboratory in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, began setting records. Their goal was to find materials in which electricity can flow without resistance at the highest possible temperature.

Insurmountable barrier?
In 1911, the Dutch physicist (and later Nobel Prize winner) Heike Kamerlingh Onnes made a fascinating discovery: metals like lead and mercury lose their electrical resistance when cooled to temperatures approaching absolute zero (minus 273.15 degrees Celsius) and become "superconductive". By 1973 scientists had already been able to observe the phenomenon of superconductivity at minus 250 degrees, but it appeared that an insurmountable barrier had been reached.

Demonstrating perseverance
Then Bednorz and Müller had the idea of trying out oxide materials instead of the metal alloys that had previously been used. Although enormous doubts were expressed by other specialists in this field, they spent three years testing a plethora of different oxide materials. In the process, as Alex Müller subsequently emphasised, Georg Bednorz demonstrated particular perseverance. Successfully, as it turned out: in 1986 the two scientists presented an oxide ceramic material (lanthanum barium copper oxide), in which electricity already begins to flow without resistance at minus 238 degrees. Bednorz and Müller were celebrated as the discoverers of high-temperature superconductivity and are regarded as having paved the way for the current temperature record: a mercury oxide ceramic loses its electrical resistance at temperatures below minus 135 degrees. The first applications of these high-temperature superconductors now save valuable electricity in industrial heaters as well as in the particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).