Debanjan Chowdhury, Cornell University – Strange Metals and the Energy Crisis

On Cornell University Week: To solve any energy crisis we may encounter, waste not, want not.

Debanjan Chowdhury, assistant professor of physics, determines how to stop energy waste in the future.

Debanjan Chowdhury got his undergraduate education in Physics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and attended Harvard University for his graduate work in Theoretical Physics. After spending three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, supported by the Gordon & Betty Moore foundation, he started as an Assistant Professor at Cornell University in 2020. Chowdhury uses a variety of theoretical techniques to study and predict the quantum properties of trillions of interacting electrons in interesting materials, ranging from high-temperature superconductors to exotic magnets. His contributions have been recognized by a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation and by a Sloan research fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation.

Strange Metals and the Energy Crisis

Imagine a world without an energy crisis, where limitless, clean and inexpensive energy is available for all. One big challenge in realizing this dream is the loss of electricity during transmission from power plants to our homes. Scientists and engineers are trying hard to minimize this loss of energy; one approach uses a special class of materials known as high-temperature superconductors.

Superconductivity is a real-world manifestation of quantum mechanics. This phenomenon arises when trillions of electrons come together, almost like a dance, resulting in a flow of electricity without any loss. However, all known superconductors can only operate at extremely cold temperatures. Even the highest temperature superconductor has to be kept at minus 220 degrees Fahrenheit.

The most famous high-temperature superconductors belong to a family of compounds known as “cuprates.” In spite of decades of research, the microscopic reasons for why and how superconductivity emerges in cuprates remains largely unclear. We do know that when heated to higher temperatures, these materials lose their superconductivity, become metallic and start showing other surprising properties. The strangest feature in this metallic state is that regardless of which compound one looks at, the characteristic rate of electron collisions is universal and not governed by any property tied to the chemical composition of the material.

This suggests that there is possibly a deeper connection between the strange metallic behavior and high-temperature superconductivity. There are futuristic power plants where cuprate wires are being used in critical components. It’s essential for theoretical physicists like me to keep working to understand the properties of strange metals as these could hold the key to using superconductivity at much higher temperatures – and could solve the problem of electricity loss in the future.