2004 Science, Technology and Environment

Deborah Jin

Created a new form of matter which could potentially unlock the key to superconductivity, a phenomenon with the potential to improve energy efficiency dramatically across a broad range of applications.

At the age of 35, Dr. Deborah Jin has created a new form of matter which is the scientific equivalent of bringing a World Series championship to Boston, and in the process she has opened the door to dramatic improvements in the way we all live. Not bad for government work.

To be specific, Dr. Jin and her team of scientists at JILA, a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado have taken fermions, one of the universe’s two fundamental classes of particles, and found a way to get them to behave identically by matching them into pairs. Here’s the rub. Fermions don’t like each other. They are fiercely anti-social, meaning one never wants to do exactly what another fermion is doing. But Dr. Jin found that by exposing a gas of Potassium atoms to temperatures a fraction of a degree above absolute zero (negative 459 degrees Fahrenheit) and subjecting them to magnetic fields, you can get them to pair up.

While the significance of Dr. Jin’s achievement is not easily appreciated by a lay person, the comments of leading scientists leave no question as to its importance.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Eric Cornell said, “This is a major breakthrough… I doubt very much I could have made this experiment work.”

NIST Director Dr. Arden L. Bement notes, “She has achieved something that most scientists would have argued couldn’t be done.”

University of Maryland Physics Professor James Gates said, “Ultimately, it could mean faster computers, smaller cell phones or the development of some technology we haven’t even thought of.”

The primary cause for excitement over Dr. Jin’s achievement is that researchers hope it will help unravel the mysteries of superconductivity, where electricity flows through wires without resistance. Although superconductivity is already in use to a limited degree, it involves super-cold temperatures that are expensive to create. The pairing of Dr. Jin’s fermions resembles what might happen to electrons in a room-temperature superconductor, so her work is seen as moving us much closer to converting superconductivity into practical products. What are some of these practical applications? For starters, a practical, room temperature superconducting wire would allow power plants to deliver electricity to our homes without any loss of current, greatly reducing energy costs. Currently, about 10 percent of power supplies are lost through electrical resistance, so the potential societal benefits of this technology would be huge.

Six other teams around the globe had actually been racing to pair fermions, from our nation’s leading research universities—MIT, Duke and Rice—to labs in Innsbruck, Paris and Florence. But it was Dr. Jin and her team that were the first to discover what many of the world’s brightest scientific minds could not.

It will be many years before we know all of the practical applications of Dr. Jin’s discovery. But, regardless of the real life benefits that it may deliver, it is still a remarkable accomplishment because it has given us a better understanding of matter at its most basic level, satisfying our innate human thirst for knowledge. Again, not bad for government work.