Alexei Abrikosov, a Russian-born physicist who won the Nobel Prize for theoretical work on materials that can carry strong electric currents without resistance and are vital in science, technology and medicine, died March 29 in Sunnyvale, California. He was 88.
Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, where he spent many years, announced the death but did not provide a cause.
Abrikosov left Moscow in 1991, after the Soviet Union collapsed, and joined Argonne. He shared the 2003 Nobel for explaining the magnetic properties of the type of superconductor that has found particularly wide applicability. These are known as Type II superconductors. Once thought to be outliers among superconductors, they are now considered to be the most common.
Superconductors, as the name implies, have an almost astonishing ability to carry electric current. At low temperatures, current flows in them without resistance. No energy is wasted in generating unwanted, potentially damaging heat.
But in high magnetic fields, they lost their superconducting properties, reducing their usefulness.
In his prize-winning work, Abrikosov explained theoretically how another family of superconductors could withstand the invasion of magnetic fields. They could then be used to carry the strong currents needed to produce unusually strong magnetic fields.
Type II superconductors, once considered rarities in nature, have come into daily use in producing the magnetic fields that make possible magnetic resonance imaging equipment, one of modern medicine’s most important diagnostic tools. They are also used in cellphone towers.
To cite still another example, members of the Type II family are the key components in the superconducting magnets that guide charged particles around the celebrated Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. That is the super powerful particle accelerator that made possible the discovery of the Higgs boson, the elusive particle so important to modern theories of matter.
All this work owes a great deal to Abrikosov’s work, which provided the theoretical understanding needed to make the best use of Type II superconductors.
His theory propounded a system by which magnetic fields enter the superconductors, but in what almost seems a paradox, they remain outside at the same time.
His theory embodied a lattice of pathways on the atomic level, along which magnetic fields could be guided within superconductors. So long as the fields remain inside these tunnel-like structures, the materials retain superconducting properties, no matter how high the field.
The vortex description is associated with current that races around the perimeters of the holes, or tubes. Although it may seem a mechanical concept, it actually embodied sophisticated mathematics and deep understanding of quantum mechanical principles, which govern matter at levels far smaller than the everyday world of sensory experience.
Abrikosov was born in Moscow on June 25, 1928. It was 11 years after the Rn Revolutionution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. His parents were physicians. His father is credited in several publications with supervising the 1924 autopsy for the first leader of the Soviet state, V.I. Lenin.
It has also been reported that one of those to whom his mother ministered was Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin.
Precociously able as a mathematician, Abrikosov was 15 when he began higher education in Moscow at a power engineering institute. Two years later he moved to Moscow State University, where he received a master’s degree in 1948. Subsequently, he obtained a degree equivalent to the western world’s PhD at the Institute for Physical Problems in 1951.
Then he joined the Landau Institute — named for his mentor, physicist and Nobel laureate Lev D. Landau — where he headed theoretical solid state physics. For much of his time in Moscow, Abrikosov was a professor at Moscow State University. He had been director of the Institute for High Pressure Physics, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, before moving to the United States.
Over a career that continued until shortly before his death, he was credited with being author or co-author of more than 200 research papers, in a variety of fields, some close to the area of his Nobel-winning work, and some relatively remote, such as astrophysics and quantum electrodynamics.
He shared the Nobel with Vitaly L. Ginzburg, then of the P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow, and Anthony J. Leggett, a London-born physicist then at the University of Illinois.
Abrikosov was a recipient of the Soviet Union’s Lenin Prize in 1966, as well as the Sony Corp.’s John Bardeen Award in 1991; Bardeen was one of the creators of a fundamental theory of conventional superconductor behavior.
He became an American citizen in 1999. He moved last April to Sunnyvale, where a daughter was living. Survivors include his wife, Svetlana Yuriyevna Bunkova, and three children.