Career Prospects in Superconductivity

Two decades ago, the technological promise of high-temperature superconductivity (HTS) seemed endless; but so far little of that promise has been realized, and as a consequence, employment opportunities are still few.

But many scientists and administrators--including Dean Peterson, director of the Superconductivity Technology Center (STC) at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico--still believe in the field's technological potential. Over the last decade, he says, scientists and engineers have started to overcome the fundamental technical challenges that have stymied the field, and commercially viable applications are starting to come on line. "While initially there was a great deal of hype," Peterson says, "I think now we've reached the point where we are finally solving many developmental and technical problems." Consequently, Peterson thinks that young researchers-in-training should reap rewards soon in the form of employment opportunities in academia, government, and industry. "I see it as an exciting area with a lot of potential for job-market growth."

A view from government

Peterson and his team at STC are working in close partnerships with other national laboratories, universities, and companies in an effort to develop the electric-power applications of HTS materials. Like most HTS researchers, the Los Alamos scientists started out by trying to understand the properties of the materials and find new materials with higher transition temperatures. Scientists' understanding of HTS materials is incomplete and the transition-temperature race stalled long ago, but the Los Alamos scientists have moved on to the difficulties of production and commercialization. "The challenge was to make brittle materials into a flexible wire; it seemed impossible," Peterson says. But now, that's "right on the edge of being commercially available in very normal lengths," he adds. "Our first-generation HTS tape is already being sold. Both SuperPower and American Superconductor [companies] are now supplying coated conductor tapes to customers interested in building prototype power devices."

In his 2001 testimony to the congressional committee on energy, Peterson estimated that 10% of the electricity generated in the United States is lost annually due to the resistance in copper and aluminum power-transmission cables. HTS cables, Peterson estimated, could save $16 billion every year in electrical power dissipated as heat. The HTS product market, he told the committee, could be worth $45 billion by 2025, creating as many as 150,000 jobs: "I would project that at least half of the jobs over the next 20 years would require high-level scientists and engineers to fully realize the potential of the HTS product market."

An industry view

Will these predictions come true? Alexis Malozemoff, executive vice-president and chief technical officer at American Superconductor, thinks that despite its slow progress the HTS market is now "poised to see a broad impact of this technology." American Superconductor's HTS cables were demonstrated recently in real-life electrical power grids in Columbus, Ohio, and Albany, New York. American Semiconductor is also supplying materials for a Japanese prototype maglev train currently in development. "They have a 17-km-long test track that uses coils of our superconducting wires, and the trains are flying at over 500 km per hour," says Malozemoff. Another project, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, involves building a 36.5-megawatt motor that could drive a destroyer using American Superconductor parts.

Currently, 20 American Superconductor employees have Ph.D.s. As HTS technology begins to fulfill its promise, Malozemoff thinks, the demand for scientists and engineers with the right skills is likely to increase, at American Superconductor and elsewhere. Malozemoff expects increased support from the federal government for research in superconductivity, which he hopes "will open up a lot of interesting opportunities for material scientists now working on the fundamental side of the field," he says.

To move the field forward, researchers need to integrate skills from a range of scientific disciplines. "Wire is something that draws on materials scientists and physicists; coils draw on the skills of electrical and mechanical engineers, while manufacturing wires draws on process engineering," says Malozemoff. "All these skills will be necessary to bringing these technologies to fruition."

Views from academia

Paul Chu, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston and the co-discoverer of the first superconductor to pass the 77-kelvin (liquid-nitrogen-temperature) milestone, says that young researchers need to be willing to take risks--and be patient. Right now, he admits, the job market in HTS may not be all that healthy. Still, work in the field provides excellent training for work in related fields. "Because of their broad knowledge," Chu says, HTS scientists "are very employable."

U.S.-based HTS university research groups

Christopher Lobb, a professor and senior researcher at the University of Maryland's Center for Superconductivity Research, expresses a similar idea. "I don't know anybody who hasn't been able to get a job that's been trained in HTS," Lobb says, "but the number of them who go on and study the same things is limited." Most, he says, have ended up in industry, some have ended up in government labs, and a few are in academia. "They use their skills doing other things. In that broader sense, job prospects are very healthy."

Matthew C. Sullivan, who got his Ph.D. in 2004 from Lobb's lab, is an interesting example. After finishing his Ph.D., Sullivan took a job at Intel at their development factory in Hillsboro, Oregon. "My experience in HTS, specifically growing films of superconductors and characterizing them using atomic force microscopy, helped me get the job," he says. "I found the work interesting, and I learned a lot at Intel, but I really missed teaching."

So just a year after leaving Lobb's lab for Intel, Sullivan went back to academia, teaching and setting up a low-intensity HTS research program at Ithaca College in New York. "I left Intel to work at a predominately undergraduate institution, where I can combine teaching and research," he says.So far he has managed to sustain his HTS research program despite a teaching load of four or five courses each year thanks in large part to a collaboration with Lobb. He is happy, but he is not optimistic about current job opportunities in HTS. "Most people that I know that came out of the Center for Superconductivity have left HTS," he says. "The 'bloom is off the rose' on high Tc."

The big picture

The current job market offers opportunities for advanced-degreed researchers trained in HTS, in a wide range of fields. But, Chu says, "the government presently is in the driver's seat for HTS technology development in all three sectors"--academia, industry, and government.

Chu, who is also president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, thinks the United States is still the best place in the world for conducting HTS research--but he isn't sure how long that will last. China and India, he says, are gaining ground in offering good working conditions, and advanced-degreed researchers are in demand in those countries. "Until the job environment for the graduates is improved, especially in terms of salary, the workforce of scientists in the U.S. will continue to be at risk," says Chu.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at

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