Kiwi superconductivity industry overcomes resistance

By Shaun Hendy 08/02/2010

This week, New Zealand hosts the 18th International Superconductivity Industry Summit, where multi-national heavy-weights like Siemans AG will rub shoulders with New Zealand-based companies such as General Cable NZ Ltd and HTS-110.  As the superconductivity industry matures over the next decade, these New Zealand companies have an excellent chance of becoming significant export earners.  How did New Zealand come to have a superconductivity industry in the first place, and why are multi-national companies descending on Te Papa later this week to hear what we have to say?

Superconductivity was discovered almost 100 years ago, when it was found that many metals completely lose electrical resistance once they are cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero (-273 degrees C).  When metals become this cold, rather than jostling and shoving their way through an electrical wire, electrons can pair up and ‘waltz’ quantum mechanically along the wire without resistance.  Today, to produce the intense magnetic fields needed by MRI machines, expensive liquid helium is used to cool metal electromagnets to temperatures at which they will superconduct.

Since the original discovery, many scientists have have tried and failed to find a material that would superconduct at room temperature:  such a material could allow us to dramatically shrink any device that needs powerful electromagnets, including electric motors.  I was lucky enough recently to see a talk by Jeff Tallon, one of New Zealand’s leading physicists, on the prospects for room temperature superconductivity.  Unfortunately, recent work by Jeff and James Storey (a kiwi physicist at Cambridge) suggests that room temperature superconductivity is unlikely to be possible, and even if it does exist, would not be practical enough for real applications.

However, thanks to Jeff and many other scientists at Gracefield in the Hutt Valley, we have the next best thing.  In the 1980s, Jeff and his colleagues at the DSIR (now Industrial Research Ltd) discovered a material that would superconduct at temperatures where nitrogen is a liquid (-196 degrees C).  Liquid nitrogen is a much cheaper coolant than liquid helium, so Jeff’s material makes it feasible to exploit superconductivity in many technologies beyond MRI machines.

So why can’t you catch a 300kph superconducting maglev train to visit Jeff in Lower Hutt two decades on?  Inconveniently, these ‘high temperature’ superconductors have proved to be very brittle, and it has taken more than 20 years to figure out how to turn them into wires that are ductile enough for real world applications.  Even then, these superconducting wires are difficult to work with, and require lots of know how to turn them into working electromagnets.  It is in these technologies that New Zealand has developed an edge. 

What is particularly interesting to me is the role that intellectual property has played in the development of this sector in New Zealand.  Jeff and his team only won the patents for their superconductor (BSCCO) after a long battle, but the paper value of these patents will quite possibly be dwarfed by the value of the industry that has been established around them.  Yet it was these patents that attracted the patient investment by government and others, which has been necessary for developing New Zealand’s capabilities in high temperature superconductivity.  These capabilities are now embodied in the skills and know how of a large team of scientists and engineers. 

In turn, this IP was generated by basic research undertaken at the DSIR.  The research was not carefully vetted by a purchasing agency prior to proceeding, nor was it undertaken after a careful assessment of New Zealand’s competitive advantage.  Rather, it was an inspired piece of ‘bottom-up’ science, by a team of talented New Zealanders, responding rapidly to international discoveries reported in the latest scientific journals. 

New Zealand has got this far with superconductivity because it backed a team of scientists conducting fundamental research in a highly competitive field, and because it then showed the patience to invest in developing the resulting technology for two decades.  Overseas investment has been crucial, and so the HTS wire itself is now made in the US by American Superconductor.  While the success of New Zealand’s superconductivity industry is not yet a sure thing, and further investment will be needed for it to grow, it is now earning export revenue with high-tech products that no other country can match.

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