When IBM scientists J. Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Müller discovered the first practical high-temperature superconductor material 25 years ago, they were considered rebels–and maybe even a little crazy. That’s because they were experimenting with ceramic materials that were deemed by many scientists to be inappropriate for the task.
Their stunning breakthrough altered the landscape of physics. The two were able to demonstrate the phenomenon of superconductivity in materials at a temperature that was 50% higher than had been shown before–theoretically making it possible for the effect to be used in commercial applications. For their work, they received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1987.
But it is only now, a quarter of a century later, that the early promise of this breakthrough is beginning to pay off for humanity. Electrical utilities are now deploying superconductor materials in their distribution lines, and they’re also being used or tested in wind turbines, metal processing equipment, magnetic-resonance-imaging scanners and Maglev trains.
For scientists, there are two thrilling moments in the life cycle of innovations–the initial breakthrough and the big bang of impact. This is one of those moments, and it’s felt not just by the two scientists involved but the entire staff of IBM Research. “You don’t just work for the fun of it. You’re working to have impact,” says Christophe P. Rossel, a physicist at IBM’s Zurich lab, where the superconductor work took place. “Looking at the breakthrough of a colleague is an inspiration every day.”
Here’s a video clip about the superconductor breakthrough that was made in 1986.
Müller has retired from IBM and Bednorz has cut back his schedule to about one day per week, but the legacy of their work lives on.
Rossel tells a funny story. In 1986, when he was a research fellow at the University of California, San Diego, he applied for a job at IBM Research in Zurich and visited with Bednorz, who told him about the superconductor project. Intrigued, Rossel offered to collaborate with the two IBMers and perform some testing for them. Bednorz politely turned him down. Rossel jokes that he was that close to sharing in a Nobel Prize. He went to work for IBM one year later.
The path that superconductivity has taken from lab to market is every bit as compelling as the story of the breakthrough itself. Immediately after Müller and Bednorz published a seminal paper about their research, the global physics community went wild with excitement. At a famous meeting of the American Physical Society in New York City in March of 1987, nicknamed the “Woodstock of Physics,” more than 50 scientists present discoveries based on the IBMers’ work.
The science seemed so promising that businesses immediately started trying to commercialize it. One of them was American SuperConductor Corp., which was launched by three MIT professors in 1987. Their goal was to develop cables from ceramic materials that would be bendable, durable and affordable enough for use in the electric grid.
Today, American Superconductor is poised to reap the benefits from 25 years of product development. Last year, the company received an order from South Korea’s LS Cable for 10 million feet of superconducting wire. The cable had early been tested in New York and Ohio early, but Korea is where the first large-scale commercial roll out will take place. The company anticipates landing big orders from Chinese utilities, as well.
The main attraction of superconducting cable is that is can conduct 150 times the electrical current of similarly sized copper wire. In addition, it acts as a natural surge protector. It can absorb and suppress damaging power surges, protecting conventional power grid components from being damaged. So, ceramic cable is not only dramatically more efficient than traditional materials; it also improves the manageability and durability of the grid–making it a valuable element of Smart Grids.
Before too long, the effects of that breakthrough moment at the Zurich lab in 1986 will be felt all around the world.
Here’s a link to IBM’s Centennial Icons of Progress essay about the breakthrough: http://www.ibm.com/ibm100/us/en/icons/hightempconduc