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Pushing the boundaries to aid the world

By Zhang Zhihao and Zhang Yangfei | China Daily | Updated: 2018-11-21 09:04
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Zhao Zhongxian: Pushing physics with pots and passion

Zhao Zhongxian, winner of the 2016 State Preeminent Science and Technology Award, often said his true passion - the subject that has captivated him for more than 50 years - is pushing the limits of superconducting materials in physics.

Since the discovery of superconductivity in 1911, scientists around the world have competed to discover new superconductors - materials with no electric resistance if cooled to extremely low temperatures, typically a few dozen degrees above -273 C, known as absolute zero.

Superconductors can carry a far greater electrical current than typical conductive materials, and can also repulse external magnetic fields around their surface, leading to the creation of powerful electromagnets.

Notable applications of superconductors include Maglev trains, magnetic resonance imaging and the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

However, superconductors were impractical and uneconomical before the 1980s because expensive liquid helium was required to bring the temperature close to absolute zero.

In 1987, Zhao discovered a new copper-oxide-based superconductive material that could operate at around -180 C, significantly raising the practicality of superconductors because liquid nitrogen - cheaper and more freely available than liquid helium - can easily provide the critical temperature.

"When we made the early discoveries, our lab was dirt poor," Zhao said. "During the day, we did research with pots and stoves we made ourselves, and at night, we fought rats in our bedsheets.

"It's no joke to say that our research conditions have improved hundreds of times since the 1960s," he said, adding that 40 years of reform and opening-up have made China more stable and richer, making it easier to conduct research.

"Young scientists today have solid knowledge, abundant budgets and advanced equipment, but there are also more distractions in the world."

He added that the secret behind his lifelong dedication is "making a living doing what you truly love".

"The greatest joy of being a scientist is that we are constantly overcoming obstacles and working towards a breakthrough every day. And when you finally make that breakthrough, you can see a new world like no other."

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