Although physicists warn that several technical hurdles remain, companies are preparing to take advantage of these breakthroughs in the basic science. Paul Chu of the University of Houston said that more than 15 companies, large and small, had contacted him about investing in his work after he reported that his team, in collaboration with a group from the University of Alabama, had achieved superconductivity at 98 degrees K.
Companies with expertise in superconductivity are rapidly producing their own applications of the new findings. Researchers at IBM, whose Zurich Research Laboratory made the initial discovery that sparked the excitement, reported at last month's meeting here of the American Physical Society that they had made thin films of the new superconducting materials. Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. announced its development of a thin film that retains superconductivity at 80 degrees K. Stanford University researchers have also produced a thin film of superconducting oxide that can be deposited on computer chips. And a Bell Laboratories team has created a plastic-like tape of one of the new class of materials.
The surge of activity has forced academic and government administrators to reorder their priorities in response to discoveries that Lewis Nosanow, director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Materials Research, describes as "beyond the realm of previous understanding." Nosanow said that "several tens of people in condensed matter theory are ready and willing to go on superconductivity. No one has started sending proposals to the NSF yet, but grantees are switching their emphasis."
Funding so far has not been an issue for federal agencies, which have this past winter submitted budgets for fiscal year 1988. But Louis lanniello, Deputy Associate Director for Basic Energy Sciences at the Department of Energy, said the department is "redirecting our efforts, trying to see the potential" of the new finds. The agency is spending about $4 million this year on superconductivity research.
Winners and Losers
With superconductivity a sudden winner, other sectors of physics must inevitably become losers. Lynn, for example, closed a project on hydrogen in metals so his researchers could concentrate on new superconducting compounds. And both government and academic laboratories are careful to avoid overkill and unnecessary repetition. "When you have tight funding, you can't afford to have too many people doing too many things," Lynn said.
The toughest call on the new work has yet to be made: Should the design of the proposed Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) be adapted to include magnets made of the new superconducting oxides? If the materials work technically, they will save the SSC-makers millions of dollars or permit the facility to operate at significantly higher power than now planned.
But researchers warn that the translation of superconducting research into engineering products is a slow and uncertain process. They fear an overcommitment to the new materials could backfire and delay the already ambitious project.
Crucial as they are, applications aren't yet about to dominate work on superconductors. Theoretical physicists must now revise their understanding of superconductivity in such a way as to account for the high maximum temperatures and the behavior of the oxides that are producing them. "There could be a very substantive challenge in understanding what's going on with these materials," declared NSF's Nosanow. In fact the effort to update the 1956 BCS (for Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer) theory has already started. Already, commented Robert Dynes, director of Chemical Physics Research at AT&T Bell Laboratories, "there's really good science going on."
The Frantic Pace of Discovery
NEW YORK—The past few months have seen new superconducting materials emerging almost daily, reports of new maximum temperatures for superconductivity arriving faster than the journals can handle them, and solid-state physicists participating in an unprecedented number of workshops in which results almost immediately become redundant.
The most recent event occurred here during the March meeting of the American Physical Society, at a special evening session on novel materials and high-temperature superconductivity. The gathering resembled a pep rally more than a conventional scientific symposium, with a reported audience of more than 2,000 greeting researchers like Olympic heroes.
Superconducting behavior is already familiar in magnets for particle accelerators and medical sensors. But maintaining the frigid temperatures needed for the superconducting compounds used in these devices requires liquid helium, which is both costly and inefficient.
Now, with a new class of oxides, the maximum temperature for superconductivity has jumped from 23 to almost 100 degrees Kelvin, enabling technologists to maintain the resistance-free state with liquid nitrogen. The nitrogen vaporizes at 77 degrees K and costs one-fiftieth as much as liquid helium. That change opens the possibility of levitated trains, highly efficient power transmission lines and new electronic devices based on superconducting behavior.