We carry out an experimental feasibility study of a magnetic field sensor based on the kinetic inductance of the high critical temperature (high-Tc) superconductor yttrium barium copper oxide. We pattern thin superconducting films into radio-frequency resonators that feature a magnetic field pick-up loop. At 77 K and for film thicknesses down to 75 nm, we observe the persistence of screening currents that modulate the loop kinetic inductance. We report on a device with a magnetic field sensitivity of 4 pT/Hz, an instantaneous dynamic range of 11 μT, and operability in magnetic fields up to 28 μT. According to the experimental results the device concept appears attractive for sensing applications in ambient magnetic field environments.

The kinetic inductance of superconductors has found many applications in fields as diverse as bolometry,1,2 parametric amplification,3,4 current detectors,5 and sensing of electromagnetic radiation,6,7 to name but a few. Each device harnesses a certain type of a non-linearity of the kinetic inductance Lk, such as that induced by temperature, electric current, or non-equilibrium quasiparticles. In sensor applications, radio-frequency (rf) techniques are often employed in observation of the variations of Lk: a high sensitivity follows from the intrinsically low dissipation of the superconductors, manifesting itself as a high quality factor of resonator circuits, for example.

The general advantages common to all Lk sensors include a simple fabrication process involving only a single superconducting layer, and the ability to use frequency multiplexing6,8 for the readout of large sensor arrays. These aspects have motivated the development of kinetic inductance magnetometers (KIMs), devices that combine the Lk current non-linearity with magnetic flux quantization.9,10 In this Letter, we demonstrate KIMs fabricated from yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO). YBCO is a high critical temperature (high-Tc) superconductor that enables KIM operability in liquid nitrogen.

Non-linear Lk of YBCO has previously been evaluated for bolometric2 (direct7) detection of infrared (optical) radiation. A further benefit of the material is its high tolerance against background magnetic fields, which has recently culminated in a YBCO rf resonator with a quality factor of about 104 at a temperature T < 55 K and at a magnetic flux density of 7 T applied parallel to the superconducting film.11 From a sensitivity viewpoint, an important benchmark for our KIM are state-of-the-art YBCO SQUID magnetometers12 that have a sensitivity better than 50fT/Hz. However, these SQUIDs suffer from a complicated Josephson junction fabrication process that makes mass production difficult, and in order to extend the magnetometer dynamic range beyond a few nT, they need to be operated in a flux-locked loop requiring at least four wires to each cold sensor. KIMs typically have a higher dynamic range, and they enable operation in demanding ambient magnetic field conditions.

We review the KIM operating principle, starting from the Lk current non-linearity,13,14

Lk=Lk0[1+Is/I*2].
(1)

In anticipation of using it for magnetometry, we have introduced a screening current Is, the flow of which is enforced by magnetic flux quantization. Lk0 is the kinetic inductance at Is = 0, and I* is a normalizing current on the order of the critical current Ic. Assuming that Lk is a property of a superconducting loop with an area A, we formulate the flux quantization as

(Lg+Lk)IsB0A=mΦ0,
(2)

where Lg is loop geometric inductance, B0 the spatial average of the magnetic flux density threading the loop, and mΦ0 an integer times the magnetic flux quantum. Sensitive magnetometry calls for a decent kinetic inductance fraction αk = Lk/(Lg + Lk), and an effective method of observing the B0-induced inductance variations. To establish an rf readout, two opposite edges of the loop are connected with a capacitor that leaves Is unperturbed, but creates an rf eigenmode together with the loop inductance. Then, the inductance variation translates into a changing resonance frequency, a quantity which is probed by coupling the resonator weakly into a 50-Ω readout feedline. Two KIMs of this kind have recently been reported: the materials of choice have been NbN9 and NbTiN,10 both of which are low-Tc superconductors whose disordered nature provides a magnetic penetration depth15 λ exceeding several hundreds of nm. For films with a thickness dλ, the kinetic surface inductance equals μ0λ2/d, with μ0 the vacuum permeability.

In the design of our high-Tc KIM [Fig. 1(a) and supplementary material], we use as a guideline the theoretical responsivity on resonance9 

VB0=Qt2VinIsA4QeLtotI*2[1/αk+3(Is/I*)2]
(3)

that describes how the magnetic field sensitivity of the resonator voltage V is related to the electrical and geometric device parameters. The readout rf power Prf arriving at the KIM is expressed through an excitation voltage amplitude Vin. Qt (Qe) denotes the loaded (external) quality factor. We choose a maximal A = (8 mm)2 allowed by fabrication technology. The total inductance Ltot equals one quarter9 of the loop inductance plus the contribution of the parasitic trace connecting the two halves of the loop. We anticipate that reaching a significant αk is the main bottleneck: The reported values16 of the YBCO λ in the low-T limit are only 150 − 200 nm. Few devices have previously featured long superconducting traces with a small cross-section,17 because this is expected to increase the probability of defects. As a compromise, we select a trace width w = 10 μm, and compare three devices (labeled A-C) with a variable d ≤ 225 nm. The shunt capacitor C ≃ 16 pF, which determines the unloaded angular resonance frequency through the relation (LtotC)1/2, is formed from interdigitated fingers of width 10 μm and gap 5 μm. We analytically estimate that Lg = 45.3 nH, and the parasitic trace has a contribution of 25 − 45% of Ltot. The lower (upper) end of the range corresponds to a high (low) αk. We aim at Ltot ≃ 24 nH at αk ≃ 0.2, and a loaded resonance frequency fr of about 250 MHz. The fr is chosen to be well above the magnetic signal frequencies (up to tens of kHz), while allowing the modeling of the KIM a lumped element. All device features are fabricated from YBCO.

FIG. 1.

Magnetometer and its readout scheme. (a) The superconductor mask layout of Sample C with a shunt capacitor, a coupling capacitor, and bondpads highlighted in red, blue and green, respectively. The trace widths and capacitor fingers are not to scale. (b) A photograph of Sample C on a sample holder PCB. The 44-mm-diameter PCB hosts a three-turn dc bias coil on its top surface, and a single-turn ac bias coil at the bottom. The calculated mutual inductance between the superconducting loop and the dc (ac) coil is 20 nH (5.3 nH). (c) A simplified rf readout schematic where three copies of an rf carrier are taken to ensure phase stability. The resonator encodes the magnetic signal into the rf domain. The signal appears as sidebands of the first copy of the rf carrier at low temperature T. Before amplification, the (optional) second copy interferometrically cancels carrier power. The third copy is a reference used in the demodulation of the magnetic signal to dc.

FIG. 1.

Magnetometer and its readout scheme. (a) The superconductor mask layout of Sample C with a shunt capacitor, a coupling capacitor, and bondpads highlighted in red, blue and green, respectively. The trace widths and capacitor fingers are not to scale. (b) A photograph of Sample C on a sample holder PCB. The 44-mm-diameter PCB hosts a three-turn dc bias coil on its top surface, and a single-turn ac bias coil at the bottom. The calculated mutual inductance between the superconducting loop and the dc (ac) coil is 20 nH (5.3 nH). (c) A simplified rf readout schematic where three copies of an rf carrier are taken to ensure phase stability. The resonator encodes the magnetic signal into the rf domain. The signal appears as sidebands of the first copy of the rf carrier at low temperature T. Before amplification, the (optional) second copy interferometrically cancels carrier power. The third copy is a reference used in the demodulation of the magnetic signal to dc.

Close modal

Sample A was fabricated on a 10 × 10 mm2 r-cut sapphire substrate with an yttria-stabilized zirconia and a CeO2 buffer layer to support the epitaxial growth of a d = 225 nm thick YBCO film. Sapphire was initially chosen for its very low rf dielectric loss, but the deposition process of thin YBCO films is optimized for MgO. Consequently, Samples B and C with a d = 50 nm and 75 nm thick YBCO film, respectively, were fabricated on a 110 MgO substrate without buffer layers. Low-loss microwave-resonant YBCO structures have previously been reported on both substrate materials.7,11 The YBCO films were deposited with pulsed laser deposition (PLD) and the devices were then patterned with optical lithography using a laser writer and argon ion beam etching. The etching process was monitored with secondary ion mass spectrometry for endpoint detection. We attach the KIMs onto a printed circuit board (PCB) that has copper patterns for rf wiring and magnetic bias coils [Fig. 1(b) and supplementary material]. Bondwires couple the KIM to the rf readout feedline.

The first KIM characterization is the measurement of the resonance lineshape and its sensitivity to the magnetic field. As Lk makes the resonator a sensitive thermometer,2 we resort to immersion cooling in liquid nitrogen at T = 77 K. We use a high-permeability magnetic shield that not only protects the sample from magnetic field noise, but also prevents trapping of flux vortices during the time when T crosses Tc. The core elements of the readout electronics are a low-noise rf preamplifier followed by a demodulation circuit (IQ mixer), and analog-to-digital converters [Fig. 1(c)] (see supplementary material for detailed setup schematics). We sweep the frequency of a weak (Prf ≤ -66 dBm) rf tone across the resonance. We simultaneously apply a static B0 as well as a weak, magnetic ac probe tone at a frequency of 1 kHz. This frequency is well below fr/(2Qt), the corner frequency of the KIM detection band roll-off.9 From the averaged in-phase (I) and quadrature (Q) components of the output we extract the complex-valued transmission parameter S21 = 2V/Vin. In addition, we use ensemble averaging of the modulated output voltage to extract the responsivity ∂V/∂B0 corresponding to the magnetic ac probe tone.

From the best fits18 to S21 we extract fr, Qe, and the internal quality factor Qi. Applying B0 shifts fr downwards in Samples A and C [Fig. 2(a,b)], but not in Sample B which has the thinnest film. We suspect that a non-uniform film quality, leading to a small residual resistance at T = 77 K in one arm of the loop, prohibits the proper flux quantization. However, also Sample B reacts to an ac magnetic excitation, and at a lower T ≈ 60 K we observe the proper dc response as well. This makes us suspect a locally suppressed Tc in the film. We convert the frequency shifts of Samples A and C (maximally − 140 kHz and − 50 kHz, or − 0.15 and − 0.30 resonance linewidths, respectively) into an equivalent change in Ltot. We observe a quadratic dependence of Ltot on B0 [Fig. 2(e)], which is in line with Eqs. (1–2). Unlike in low-Tc KIMs,9,10 we do not observe resetting of the sample to Is = 0 [i.e., into a finite m in Eq. (2)] upon crossing a threshold B0 corresponding to Is = Ic. Instead, the resonance of Sample A (C) stays put at B0 ≥ 28 μT (B0 ≥ 9 μT). We attribute this to flux trapping, which most likely occurs at the loop corners where the inhomogeneous bias field of the square coil is the strongest (about 1.5B0). Ref. 19 proposes a flux-trapping condition of the form IsIT(Jcd)3/4w1/2 where Jc is the critical current density. In the supplementary material we estimate that flux is trapped at Is ≥ 37 mA (Is ≥ 11 mA) in Sample A (C), which is below Ic = 45 mA (Ic = 15 mA).

FIG. 2.

High-Tc KIM characterization as functions of readout frequency and static magnetic field B0. The measurements of Sample A [(a),(c)] and Sample C [(b),(d)] show a qualitatively similar response to a variable B0 induced by the dc bias coil. (a),(b) The dip in the transmission S-parameter magnitude 20 log10|2V/Vin| gives information on the changes in the Lk and dissipation in the superconducting loop. (c),(d) The responsivity |VB0/V| is extracted from the simultaneous measurement of a 1-kHz magnetic probe tone produced by the ac bias coil. The Sample A (C) probe magnitude is 140 nT (30 nT). The responsivity maxima are indicated with dots. (e) The shift in the resonance frequency is converted into a normalized change in total inductance, and presented as a function of B02. See text for the theoretical model (grey lines). (f) Maximal responsivity as a function of B0. The solid lines are fits that are explained in the text.

FIG. 2.

High-Tc KIM characterization as functions of readout frequency and static magnetic field B0. The measurements of Sample A [(a),(c)] and Sample C [(b),(d)] show a qualitatively similar response to a variable B0 induced by the dc bias coil. (a),(b) The dip in the transmission S-parameter magnitude 20 log10|2V/Vin| gives information on the changes in the Lk and dissipation in the superconducting loop. (c),(d) The responsivity |VB0/V| is extracted from the simultaneous measurement of a 1-kHz magnetic probe tone produced by the ac bias coil. The Sample A (C) probe magnitude is 140 nT (30 nT). The responsivity maxima are indicated with dots. (e) The shift in the resonance frequency is converted into a normalized change in total inductance, and presented as a function of B02. See text for the theoretical model (grey lines). (f) Maximal responsivity as a function of B0. The solid lines are fits that are explained in the text.

Close modal

Regarding the quality factors, we note that Sample A is overcoupled with Qe = 350 much smaller than Qi ≤ 2500. Sample C is close to being critically coupled (Qe = 3500, Qi ≤ 3750). Since material quality is known to affect YBCO rf loss,20 the lower Qe of Sample A is designed to cover a wider Qi range more reliably. The observed Qi variations with respect to B0 are on the order of 10% (see supplementary material for data). Low internal dissipation is key to achieving high device sensitivity. Thus, we discuss the possible mechanisms affecting Qi. Firstly, the resistive part of the superconductor rf surface impedance generates loss that grows with increasing T, Is, and surface roughness.21,22 The dielectric losses of the substrates should not play a role: both sapphire and MgO have low relative permittivity (sapphire: ϵr = 9.3 and ϵrz = 11.3 anisotropic, MgO: ϵr = 9.6) and low dielectric loss tangents23–25 (<4 × 10−6) at T = 77 K. A loss mechanism related to the PCB deserves further attention: the presence of the bias coils made of resistive copper. In Ref. 9 as well as for the data presented in Figs. 2–3 for Sample A, bias coil rf decoupling is attempted with series impedances (resistance, inductance) on the order of hundreds of Ohms within the coils. This has allowed for Qi up to 2500, but we have learned that higher values can be reached with an arrangement where the bias coils are grounded at rf and the readout is mediated by stray coupling between the KIM and the coils (see supplementary material for details). Samples B and C as well as a subsequent cooldown of Sample A (Fig. 4) have been prepared using this better method, which presumably allows for a Qi that is limited by the intrinsic superconductor loss.

FIG. 3.

Measured magnetic field noise of Samples A and C at a high readout power of − 19 dBm, − 46 dBm, respectively. The fits to the low-frequency noise (lines) are of the form ∝ f−0.50 with − 0.50 the best-fit exponent. The measurement of Sample C appears to be more susceptible to drifts that are a likely explanation for the noise rise at f < 4 Hz. The spectral peak at 1 kHz is a deterministic magnetic probe tone, which is used for optimal rotation of the signal quadratures. Other peaks are either due to the pick-up of rf interference, or generated by the readout electronics.

FIG. 3.

Measured magnetic field noise of Samples A and C at a high readout power of − 19 dBm, − 46 dBm, respectively. The fits to the low-frequency noise (lines) are of the form ∝ f−0.50 with − 0.50 the best-fit exponent. The measurement of Sample C appears to be more susceptible to drifts that are a likely explanation for the noise rise at f < 4 Hz. The spectral peak at 1 kHz is a deterministic magnetic probe tone, which is used for optimal rotation of the signal quadratures. Other peaks are either due to the pick-up of rf interference, or generated by the readout electronics.

Close modal
FIG. 4.

Measured temperature dependencies of Samples A-C in which the film thicknesses are d = 225 nm, 50 nm, 75 nm, respectively. The resonance frequency (a) and the internal quality factor (b) are presented as a function of T. See text for the model used for the fits (lines).

FIG. 4.

Measured temperature dependencies of Samples A-C in which the film thicknesses are d = 225 nm, 50 nm, 75 nm, respectively. The resonance frequency (a) and the internal quality factor (b) are presented as a function of T. See text for the model used for the fits (lines).

Close modal

The measured device responsivities are presented in Fig. 2(c,d) as a function of the readout frequency. They are of the normalized form |V−1∂V/∂B0|: this is a convenient quantity because both V and ∂V/∂B0 experience the same gain of the readout electronics. We average these two quantities for 300 ms at each readout frequency. The measured readout frequency dependencies of |∂V/∂B0| are Lorentzians that peak on resonance. We use these data for the estimation of the sensor dynamic range,9 which is approximately 11 μT (2.8 μT) for Sample A (C) at high responsivity. As expected, the responsivity vanishes at the first-order flux-insensitive points where Is = 0. The peaks of |V−1∂V/∂B0|, shown as a collection in Fig. 2(f), are almost linearly proportional to B0. If we normalize Eq. (3) in the limit of 1/αk3(Is/I*)2,

1VVB0Qi2A2(Qi+Qe)αkIsLtotI*2,
(4)

we obtain a responsivity model where we further assume an approximately linear mapping from B0 into Is [consider Eq. (2) at m = 0]. The theory implies that the quadratic term in the normalized inductance, Ltot(B0)/Ltot(0)kB02 with k the slope [see Eq. (1)], is closely related to the normalized responsivity in Eq. (4): |V1V/B0|=2Qi2kB0/(Qi+Qe). To demonstrate this relationship, we extract k from best fits to the normalized responsivity data. The fit of Sample A [Fig. 2(f)] is slightly curved because it takes into account the independently measured Qi variation (by contrast, Sample C has a Qi which is close to a constant). We put the k into use in theory overlays on top of the measured inductance in Fig. 2(e), and observe good agreement. The uncertainties in the overlays are calculated from the error estimates of k. The best-fit k is about six times steeper in Sample C in comparison to Sample A, which is primarily an indication of a higher αk and a lower I* resulting from the thinner film. Despite the difference in the resonance lineshape, the term in Eq. (4) related to the quality factors, Qi2/(Qi+Qe), is of similar magnitude in the two KIMs [about 2000 (1900) in Sample A (C)].

To determine the magnetic field sensitivity of Samples A and C, we record time traces of V and average the squared modulus of their Fourier transform 14 − 30 times to reduce the uncertainty of the noise estimate. This type of averaging retains the noise power that is present in SV, the spectrum of V. The trace duration is 1.0 s and the sample rate is one megasample per second (see the supplementary material for the setup and the interference peaks in SV). Importantly, an rf carrier cancellation circuit [Fig. 1(c)] is activated now to prevent the saturation of the readout electronics. To avoid adding phase noise to V, we take the cancellation tone, the readout tone, and the reference for demodulation from the same rf generator. We measure the sensitivity at fr as a function of Prf, and we also compare B0 bias points with a high and a vanishingly small |∂V/∂B0|. At low Prf we observe a white SV determined by thermal noise and noise added by the preamplifiers. As we increase the power, an SV ∝ 1/f-like spectrum emerges and eventually dominates the voltage noise, increasing linearly with Prf (see supplementary material for details). The voltage spectra at the high responsivity and at the highest Prf have been converted into the magnetic domain in Fig. 3, yielding a sensitivity |V/B0|1SV1/2 of about 4pT/Hz at 10 kHz for both KIMs. The 1/f corner frequency is about 2 kHz (500 Hz) for Sample A (C). However, the noise of Sample C appears to scale according to a different exponent in the power law of the frequency dependence at 0.1 − 1 kHz. We can rule out direct magnetic field noise because SV is similar at the operating point with vanishing responsivity (see supplementary material for data). The origin of the low-frequency noise mechanism is currently not fully understood.

Finally, we probe the resonances of Samples A and B at a variable temperature. The extracted fr(T) and Qi(T) are the most sensitive to T when the devices are just below Tc (Fig. 4). An analytical model7,26

fr(T)fr(Tmin)fr(Tmin)λ(T=Tmin)λ01TTc21/2
(5)

exists where Tmin is the lowest T in the dataset, and λ0 = λ(T = 0). For both samples, the best fits of this form have Tc = 90.5 ± 0.2 K and λ(T = 77 K) ≈ 1.9λ0 [Fig. 4(a)]. According to the fit, the sensitivity of fr to T in Sample A is about − 0.64 MHz/K at T = 77 K. We use this information to estimate13 that a 1 mK change in T would produce the same swing in V as a 57 nT change in B0, at the operating point where the noise of Sample A has been measured. Furthermore, we combine the fr(T) data with geometric considerations to estimate that Samples A, B and C have αk ≃ 0.06, 0.4, 0.16, respectively, at T = 77 K. In Fig. 4(b) we deduce that the Qi(T) drop below 103 near Tc is a result of a remarkable increase of intrinsic rf losses.

In conclusion, we have demonstrated high-Tc kinetic inductance magnetometers with a sensitivity of 4pT/Hz at 10 kHz and T = 77 K. They tolerate background fields of 9 − 28 μT, which is close to the Earth’s field. We anticipate that changing the sensor geometry by implementing narrow constrictions10 to reduce Ic should allow for periodical resets, enabling operation at even higher fields. This could open the road to applications in, e.g., geomagnetic exploration27 or quantum computation10 with electron spins or trapped ions. The constrictions should also help to increase αk, a likely route towards a higher responsivity. Considering the sensitivity, we would find useful a further study of the cause of the low-frequency noise, and methods to minimize it.

See supplementary material for detailed information on the samples, the experimental setup, the estimates of Is and Ic, as well as extended measurement data.

We thank Maxim Chukharkin for fabricating Sample A, Paula Holmlund for help in sample preparation, and Juho Luomahaara and Heikki Seppä for valuable discussions. V.V., H.S., M.K. and J.H. acknowledge financial support from Academy of Finland under its Centre of Excellence Program (project no. 312059), and grants no. 305007 and 310087. S.R., A.K., D.W. and J.F.S. acknowledge financial support from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation (KAW2014.0102), the Swedish Research Council (621-2012-3673) and the Swedish Childhood Cancer Foundation (MT2014-0007). We acknowledge support from the Swedish national research infrastructure for micro and nano fabrication (Myfab) for device fabrication.

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