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March 24, 1987


By CBR Staff Writer

A temperature of minus 181 degrees centigrade is not exactly one that any of us would care to spend much time enduring, but it is also a far cry from the minus 269 to 273 degrees at which the more mature among us were brought up to believe that superconductivity was possible. Some 92 degrees in fact. Yet ever since scientists at IBM’s Zurich lab announced that they had discovered new compounds in which superconductivity occurred at startlingly high temperatures, the race has been on around the world to repeat the experiments and new records have been claimed almost daily. As of last week, minus 181 was the best achieved – in February, at the University of Houston – and the announcement came at an event that is being described as the Woodstock of Physics – by the New York Times at least. (It seems originality died in the US with the 1970s, and no scandal can now escape having gate tagged onto the end of it, and no positive historic even can be attributed other than by the Woodstock of…). The event was a meeting called in New York by the American Physical Society last Thursday at which no fewer than eight new materials were claimed at the New York meeting to exhibit superconductivity at around 90 degrees above Absolute Zero.

The electrical equivalent of perpetual motion

Even in the unexcitable UK, some cautiously encouraging noises are being made. Scientists at the Atomic Energy Authority’s Rutherford Laboratory have been trying to repeat the IBM Zurich experiments, which used an Oxide of Lanthanum, Barium and Copper, and Professor Colin Goodman, chief research fellow at STC’s Standard Telephone Laboratories in Harlow, Essex, told the Independent that the the development was possibly the greatest scientific discovery of the second half of the twentieth century – certainly more important than the laser, the transistor or the silicon chip.

Why the excitement?

Well superconductivity is the electrical equivalent of perpetual motion – or it would be if it could be achieved at room temperature. And perpetual electrical motion holds out the promise of computers that operate at the speed of light, of electrical transmission systems in which no power is lost in carrying the current from where it is generated to where it is to be used, and of power storage systems that enable hydroelectric and other forms of naturally-generated energy to be stored at little cost until it is needed, of electric motors that operate with undreamed-of efficiency.

$10,000m a year savings in transmission costs

Mario Rabinowitz, who is head of advanced research for the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, told the Wall Street Journal that he saw the new superconducting materials saving the US $10,000m a year in power now lost in transmission – and that that in turn would eliminate the need to build $20,000m of new generating plants to meet ever-growing demand. The cost, apart from that of making the materials, that typically include some of the more exotic and scarce rare earth elements, of course comes in the cost of the energy needed to create the low temperatures at which the phenomenon occurs. To get the temperatures that were required as recently as last year, you needed to resort to liquid Helium cooling, whereas liquid Nitrogen will get you minus 180 – and it costs little enough to liquify Nitrogen that you can use it to freeze fish fingers. Mr Rabinovitz reckons that underground transmission pipes of Copper or Aluminium coated with one of the superconducting new materials, with liquid Nitrogen pumped through the pipes, could be put into service almost immediately. It is 90% cheaper to use Nitrogen than Helium for cooling – and there is no problem at all if you happen to be in outer space. A decade ago, conspiracy theorists tied together the fact that IBM was hard at work on Josephson Junction technology, which switches very fast but only at low temperatures, with the fact that the company was reaching for the stars with Satellite Business Systems, to suggest that the company envisaged an enormous Big Mother in the Sk

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y, an extraordinarily fast computer bureau that would do its sums in space and beam the answers back to earth. Satellite Business Systems has gone to MCI Communications and IBM has abandoned its work on Josephson Junctions, and pace the fact that it was the IBM research lab in Zurich that set the present superconducting hare running, the former conspiracy theorists, now older and greyer, point to the IBM withdrawals and sell-offs as evidence that a once-mighty company has hopelessly lost its way.

The Japanese take up the baton, bet on supercomputers

Nothing of course changes, and as usual, the Japanese, who had been looking the other way until the Houston breakthrough was announced, have taken up the baton with their usual alacrity, and it is likely that the next successive 20 or so record high temperature demonstrations of superconductivity will be made in Japan – indeed a dozen Japanese laboratories have also claimed to have bettered the Houston breakthrough. The Japanese Education Ministry has spent nearly $4m on university superconducting projects since the beginning of 1984, and as practical applications are perceived to be in reach, the Japanese machine is now really getting into top gear. The Ministry of International Trade & Industry is launching a study to determine the appropriate industrial for superconductivity and the Science & Technology Agency is forming a consortium of researchers from universities, government laboratories and companies to spearhead the Japanese effort, and while power transmission is exciting the Americans most, in Japan, despite an experimental superconducting magnetically-powered linear motor hover-train already in existence, the betting is leaning strongly to extremely compact, enormously powerful supercomputers being the first application. Because unlike IBM, the major Japanese companies never abandoned their work on Josephson Junctions.

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