Physicists at Yale University have made the first definitive measurements of “persistent current,” a small but perpetual electric current that flows naturally through tiny rings of metal wire even without an external power source.
The team used nanoscale cantilevers, an entirely novel approach, to indirectly measure the current through changes in the magnetic force it produces as it flows through the ring. “They’re essentially little floppy diving boards with the rings sitting on top,” said team leader Jack Harris, associate professor of physics and applied physics at Yale. The findings appear in the October 9 issue of Science.
The counterintuitive current is the result of a quantum mechanical effect that influences how electrons travel through metals, and arises from the same kind of motion that allows the electrons inside an atom to orbit the nucleus forever. “These are ordinary, non-superconducting metal rings, which we typically think of as resistors,” Harris said. “Yet these currents will flow forever, even in the absence of an applied voltage.”
Although persistent current was first theorized decades ago, it is so faint and sensitive to its environment that physicists were unable to accurately measure it until now. It is not possible to measure the current with a traditional ammeter because it only flows within the tiny metal rings, which are about the same size as the wires used on computer chips.