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Superconductivity and magnetism and their interplay in quaternary borocarbides RNi2B2C

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Since 1986, most of the interest in superconductivity became focused on high-Tc cuprates. The discovery of the superconducting quaternary borocarbide system Y–Ni–B–C with Tc as high as –12 K inspired research into intermetallic superconductors (IMS) once again. Several reasons can be attributed to this revival of interest in IMS: (i) In the tetragonal quaternary magnetic superconductors RNi2B2C, superconductivity and magnetism occur with Tc and TN – 10 K, thereby allowing studies of exotic phenomena associated with, and arising from, the interplay of superconductivity and magnetism. (ii) High TN's and a variety of commensurate and incommensurate magnetic structures in RNi2B2C (Fermi surface nesting playing a central role) strongly suggest that R-spins are coupled via the RKKY-exchange interaction. Hence, unlike in most other magnetic superconductors known so far, conduction electrons take part in superconductivity and magnetism. (iii) Quaternary borocarbides open up new pathways to try and synthesize multicomponent intermetallic superconductors. Their remarkable intrinsic superconducting and magnetic properties and the availability of high quality samples (bulk polycrystalline, large single crystals and thin films) make RNi2B2C particularly special to investigate. Several unusual phenomena have been reported, such as, to name a few, dramatic phonon mode softening at Tc, Hc2(T) exhibiting a positive curvature near Tc and a four-fold anisotropy in the basal plane; a variety of exceptional and fascinating flux line lattice (FLL) related effects - FLL-symmetry transformations and alignments with the underlying crystal lattice as a function of applied field (manifestation of nonlocal electrodynamics despite high κ – 10, and thermal fluctuation effects even though Tc, – 16 K, is not too high) and a four-fold symmetric star-shaped (in real space) vortex core. RNi2B2C are strong coupling s-wave BCS superconductors and, remarkably, have a superconducting gap with extreme anisotropy. Strong experimental evidence shows that the four-fold symmetric superconducting gap has point nodes along the 100- and 10-directions, a feature that has been shown consistent with (s + g)-Cooper pairing. An energy gap with such strong anisotropy is unusual for an s-wave superconductor and, hence, calls for a pairing mechanism different from conventional electron–phonon coupling. Antiferromagnetic fluctuations possibly play an important role in the mechanism. Magnetic superconductors RNi2B2C (R = Dy, Ho, Er, Tm) reveal several phenomena, not observed earlier, associated with the interplay of superconductivity and magnetism. Microscopic evidence (via square FLL interacting with magnetism) of the coexistence of magnetism and superconductivity; intrinsic FLL-pinning by magnetic ions; weak ferromagnetism (local moment) coexisting with superconductivity (down to the lowest temperature) and the spontaneous vortex phase (ErNi2B2C); superconductivity setting in an already magnetically ordered lattice (DyNi2B2C) and pair-breaking by nonmagnetic ions in such materials; rich and complex magnetic structures and double (nearly) re-entrant superconductivity (HoNi2B2C) and changes in the FLL-symmetry in the vicinity of magnetic transition (TmNi2B2C) and 4f-quadrupole ordering (TmNi2B2C) are several exciting phenomena that magnetic superconductors RNi2B2C exhibit.

At the end of this review are indicated some possible further studies in quaternary borocarbide superconductors. These studies may turn out to be important not only with respect to borocarbides themselves but also from the standpoint of superconductivity in general.

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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, Nöthnitzer Str. 38, D-01187 Dresden, Germany

Publication date: 2006-11-01

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