TOKYO — From the moment IBM researchers uncovered a revolutionary material that could transform modern electronics, Japan has served notice that it will no longer take a back seat to American basic science.
In October, 1986, a Tokyo University team heard that IBM researchers in Zurich were claiming discovery of a material that transmitted electricity far faster and more efficiently at higher temperatures than previously dreamed possible. If true, the phenomenon of "superconductivity" could usher in an age of lightning-fast computers, magnetically levitating trains, ultra-sensitive medical equipment and lower energy bills.
But the IBM paper left unanswered many critical questions, failing to establish irrefutable proof. Thus, many researchers around the world regarded it as another unverified claim of high-temperature superconductivity like those that had tantalized scientists for decades.
The Japanese, however, investigated. Working around the clock, they created a different recipe from IBM's, containing lanthanum, barium, strontium and copper oxides. By developing superior materials, they provided the hard proof that the IBM report lacked: the world's first identification of the crystal structure and first convincing evidence of two key superconductor properties. Their work "lit a fire under all the labs in the world," kicking off the global superconductor stampede, said M. Brian Maple, a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego.
"I believe we opened a new field of science. For 20 or 30 years, scientists dreamed of this. And we reached it," said Shoji Tanaka, director of Japan's superconductivity research consortium who headed the Tokyo University team at the time.
But the Tokyo team did more than help open a new venue of scientific inquiry. It proved that Japan was ready and able to aggressively compete in basic science, long a bastion of unparalleled U.S. strength. From that first verification of high-temperature superconductors, to discoveries of new materials and processes, the Japanese have mounted a basic research effort as good and in some respects better than America's. In fact, the U.S. Commerce Department concluded in May that the United States will begin "losing badly" to Japan in superconductor research and new product introduction.
The Japanese efforts in superconductivity signify a new age of original and innovative scientific research. Long accused of taking free rides on U.S. science, Japan is striving to cast off the label of imitator and become a pioneer of new technologies. Perhaps more than any other new field, Japan has made a mark in superconductivity.
Superconductors are materials that transmit electricity without the normal resistance that turns part of any electrical flow into useless heat. Because electricity can flow unimpeded, it travels faster. Because it doesn't generate wasteful heat, it is far more efficient.
Such properties could cut the cost of generating electricity by 60% and of transmitting it via superconducting underground wires by 40%, the Argonne National Laboratory estimated last year. They make possible laptop computers with supercomputing power. That's because electricity can travel at higher speeds through circuits packed more closely together than normal, heat-generating conductors. A superconductive transistor, the basic unit of a computer, works 1,000 times faster than a conventional transistor and with one-thousandth the energy.
In addition, superconductors can be used to create powerful magnetic fields that repel each other. That property has been used to develop levitating trains that speed along at more than 300 miles per hour on a magnetic cushion and an experimental ship that uses the force of magnetic repulsion to propel itself through the water.
Superconductivity was discovered in 1911, but commercial applications were limited because materials first had to be cooled to temperatures more than 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit with an expensive substance called liquid helium. The 1986 breakthroughs demonstrated superconductivity at higher temperatures, and the University of Houston blew open the door to vast commercial potential one year later. Researchers discovered a superconductor based on yttrium that worked at warm enough temperatures to use liquid nitrogen, a coolant one-fiftieth the cost of liquid helium.
In the global sweepstakes to understand and exploit the tantalizing new field, the Japanese have distinguished themselves. They have contributed significant scientific advancements, including the establishment of half the world's new oxide superconductors, through experimental recipes combining a variety of elements. They have committed more researchers than the United States--about 1,200 versus 1,000--even though they have half the population. They are spending nearly the same amount of money, despite a gross national product that is half as large.