Science: Superconductors!

The startling breakthrough that could change our world

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All the applications, though, depend on bringing the technology out of the lab, and despite the bubbly confidence of many scientists, obstacles remain. One is the need to form the new materials into usable shapes. While metals bend, anyone who has dropped a dinner plate knows that ceramics do not. And a flexible material has a big advantage over a brittle one if it is to be coiled around an electromagnet. Says Osamu Horigami, chief researcher at Toshiba's Energy Science and Technology Laboratory: "To get a magnet or coil or even a wire we could use with complete confidence could take another five years." Agrees Hulm: "It will take extraordinary engineering to solve the brittleness problem."

IBM scientists may already have a partial answer: they announced last week that the new compounds can be "spray-painted" onto complex forms, where they solidify. Says IBM Scientist Jerome Cuomo, who described the technique at the American Ceramic Society conference in Pittsburgh: "This opens the door wider than ever to the fabrication of useful objects made of superconducting materials."

More fundamental is the fact that while the new ceramics remain superconductors at high temperatures and can withstand intense magnetic fields, they can as yet carry only about a hundredth of the current capacity of conventional superconductors. And because the amount of current flowing through the magnetic field determines its strength, scientists are concerned that a quick fix may not be in sight. Warns GE's Robb: "What we need now is a second invention that would modify copper oxides to allow high currents to flow at high temperatures. There's a fifty-fifty chance that second invention will ever be made."

Finally, there is a human problem that could hinder progress in the suddenly vigorous field of superconductivity: the increasing unwillingness of scientists to exchange information about their experiments. At the Woodstock of physics meeting, for example, some were miffed when Stanford researchers, following their presentation, refused to divulge further details of their research; they had been advised by patent attorneys to reveal as little as possible until their work was legally protected. The competition extends beyond legal rights. Two weeks after Chu's record-breaking temperature was announced, the Berkeley team independently came up with the same superconducting compound. They immediately mailed a report of their results to Physics Letters, hoping it would be received before Chu's paper was published. Reason: they wanted to establish that they had not merely copied his work.

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