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Race to Build Better Superconductor--a Scientific Scramble

April 22, 1987|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | Times Science Writer

ARGONNE, Ill. — Chemist Donald Capone missed his Christmas vacation last year working overtime in his lab here, and now he has missed his Easter vacation also.

For most of the last four months, in fact, Capone has been working 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, in his lab at the Argonne National Laboratory, living on junk food and engaging in an international scientific race the likes of which has not been seen in this decade.

Capone is not alone in his devotion. As many as 50 researchers here have joined in a frantic effort to beat the rest of the world to build a better superconductor.

That hard work paid off for Capone three weeks ago when he made the first measurement of the current-carrying capacity of a wire formed from the new superconducting material.

That was a small but important step in a quest that could over the next two decades lead to a revolution in the transmission of electricity, bringing with it levitating magnetic railroad trains, smaller and faster computers and more efficient long-distance power transmission. Scientists are comparing recent work on superconductivity to the discovery of nuclear fission or the development of the transistor.

No Loss of Power

Superconducting materials transmit electricity with no loss of power due to resistance. In contrast, even such good electrical conductors as silver and copper display some power loss due to resistance, often as much as 25% in long-distance transmission.

As recently as a few months ago, only a handful of scientists throughout the world were studying superconducting materials. Since December, the field has exploded with activity, not only in the United States, but also in Japan, Western Europe, China, India and the Soviet Union. This burst of research has resulted in a series of breakthroughs in the field.

Until recently, only a few metals and metal alloys displayed superconductivity, and then only at extremely low temperatures. The best superconductors now available commercially have to be cooled to minus 419 degrees Fahrenheit, or below 23.2 degrees on the Kelvin scale commonly used by scientists, before they become superconducting. This is normally achieved by bathing them in liquid helium, a process that is both very expensive and very inefficient.

As a result, the practical uses of superconductors have been limited. Superconducting metals are now used to make very powerful magnets for accelerators used by physicists and imaging devices used by physicians.

In January, 1986, however, two Swiss scientists found that a metal oxide ceramic became superconducting at a temperature of about 30 degrees Kelvin (minus 406 degrees Fahrenheit). Their findings, published in an obscure European journal last April, went nearly unnoticed until December, when Japanese scientists reported a confirmation of their finding at a scientific meeting in Boston.

The Boston meeting served to unleash hundreds of researchers in a mad race for glory and fortune.

The findings that have followed have pushed the superconducting temperature above 77 degrees Kelvin, which permits the use of liquid nitrogen as a coolant. Cooling with liquid nitrogen is much easier and much, much cheaper than cooling with liquid helium, and opens a whole new spectrum of potential uses for superconductors.

The superconductivity research at Argonne is typical of the activity going on elsewhere; it represents the scientific world in microcosm. But Argonne is the federal government's principal site for superconductivity research.

It is also, spokesman David Baurac says, the only facility that is capable of making the new superconductors in pound quantities rather than grams, and scientists there hope to exploit this advantage before other labs develop a similar capability.

"There is a Nobel Prize lurking out there," says Argonne director Alan Schriesheim, "and probably two--one for the person who finds the best high-temperature superconductor and one for the person who explains how it works. Maybe even a third if there is a unique societal impact we don't see today."

Beyond the scientific glory, furthermore, lie potentially immense riches.

Jump on the Competition

The companies or individuals who have patents on the basic superconducting materials or on devices made from it will have a significant leg up on the competition and will be in a position to reap rich rewards. Consequently, the U.S. Patent Office is being deluged with applications from anyone who has ever made a new superconducting material, and many years will pass, experts say, before all the claims of priority will be sorted out.

(Because they work for a federal laboratory, Argonne scientists do not stand to profit from their work. The federal government owns rights to their inventions.)

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