Science: Superconductors!

The startling breakthrough that could change our world

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Now, in a series of rapid-fire discoveries, researchers around the world have begun concocting a different class of materials that become superconductors at significantly higher temperatures -- levels that, while still beyond the reach of a kitchen refrigerator, are easier and less costly to attain. These achievements have had an electrifying effect on a subject that just a year ago would have elicited yawns from physicists and blank stares from politicians. Indeed, hardly a week has passed since the New York City meeting without reports from competing scientists -- in the popular press as well as in professional journals -- of new superconducting materials and ever higher temperature ranges. An effect that once could be detected only with sophisticated equipment has become a common sideshow at conferences: a sample of one of the new materials is placed in a dish of liquid nitrogen, and a magnet placed above it. Since superconductors repel magnetic fields, a phenomenon called the Meissner effect, the magnet remains suspended in midair.

Fun and games aside, though, the competition is growing more intense. Researchers around the world are canceling vacations, ignoring their families, moving cots into their labs and subsisting on takeout food and microwave popcorn. "We've been working since right after Christmas," says Physicist J.T. Chen of Wayne State University in Detroit. "We do experiments almost every day. Sometimes we sleep only three or four hours. Maybe it was like this when the transistor was invented, but in my personal experience this is unique." Says Japanese Chemist Kohji Kishio: "The race is for the Nobel Prize."

The world's leading industrial nations are in a race of another kind. Quick to recognize the commercial potential of the new development, Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry plans to subsidize private-sector research, and will establish a center in Nagoya to test equipment made from * superconducting materials. In Washington, the Department of Energy has decided to double this year's research support for superconductors to $40 million; it is also compiling a computerized database that will enable American scientists to keep up to date on fast-breaking superconductor research results, and will co-sponsor a White House conference on superconductivity this summer. "It's a monumental subject," says Energy Secretary John Herrington. "It ranks up there with the laser." In the Senate, Minnesota Republican David Durenberger has co-sponsored a bill calling on the President to form a national commission to coordinate superconductivity research and development. Says Durenberger: "We cannot stand idly by while Japan targets another industry for industrial supremacy." Last week the National Science Foundation announced $1.6 million in grants to help keep the U.S. competitive in superconductivity research.

The superlatives roll in. "In terms of the societal impact, this could well be the breakthrough of the 1980s in the sense that the transistor was the breakthrough of the 1950s," says Alan Schriesheim, director of Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. Indeed, scientists hardly know where to start in describing the bonanza that superconductors could yield.

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