Funding Your Research in High-Temperature Superconductivity

In the United States, research in high-temperature superconductivity (HTS) is funded from specialized programs set aside for HTS research specifically, or from larger programs that more broadly support materials and condensed-matter physics research. The biggest supporter of HTS research funding in United States is the federal Department of Energy (DOE), which funds both basic research and applied projects. Other funders (and potential funders) of HTS include the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Naval Research Laboratory for military-related materials research.

Basic research funding

Department of Energy

DOE is interested in high-temperature superconductivity because of its prospects for strengthening the electrical power grid in the United States. HTS's potential applications in electricity distribution promise to increase dramatically the capacity of electrical power lines and reduce the losses that occur in copper wire. Other HTS applications can contribute to improved stability and reliability of the power grid.

DOE's superconductivity program is a continuing commitment, not a one-time undertaking, says Jim Daley, manager of the program. “The current projects will last several years and are progressing in stages,” says Daley.

To help meet its policy goals, DOE funds both basic research and applied research and development (R&D) in superconductivity. For basic research funding, researchers should look to DOE's Basic Energy Sciences program--part of DOE's Office of Science--and specifically its Division of Materials Sciences and Engineering. One of this division's core research activities is Experimental Condensed Matter Physics, which includes in its portfolio studies of superconductivity. The objective of this part of the program is to provide a better understanding of physical phenomena behind the properties and behavior of advanced materials, but the program's administrators also value the development of experimental techniques and methodologies.

Another research activity in the Division of Materials Sciences and Engineering that funds HTS research is Physical Behavior of Materials. This program, according to its description, “refers to the physical response of a material, including the electronic, chemical, magnetic and other properties, to an applied stimulus.” This group aims to build a better understanding of the physical properties of materials, leading to rigorous models for predicting the response of materials to external stimuli. Like the Experimental Condensed Matter Physics group, this unit is also interested in new experimental tools and instrumentation.

The Basic Energy Sciences program and other extramural research functions at DOE use an annual blanket solicitation that spells out the rules and procedures for new research proposals, while a separate solicitation is used for renewals. In its guidelines for researchers new to the Basic Energy Sciences program, DOE encourages prospects to first contact the relevant manager associated with the relevant core research areas help get a better understanding of research needs and funding opportunities. The program's organization chart and staff directory on DOE's Web site can help locate these people.

National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation is another source of basic research funding in high-temperature superconductivity, mainly through its Division of Materials Research, which is part of the Directorate for Mathematics and Physical Sciences. This division includes a Condensed Matter Physics program for experimental and theoretical research in materials science that includes superconductivity as an area of interest.

The Division of Materials Research also has a program for Condensed Matter and Materials Theory that supports studies that advance “conceptual, analytical, and computational techniques for materials research.” This program’s areas of interest include high-temperature superconductivity.

These two programs support the largest number of research projects on HTS funded by NSF, according to program directors Wendy Fuller-Mora and Daryl Hess. In an e-mail, Fuller-Mora and Hess also recommended that researchers in HTS consider the Division’s programs in Ceramics, Electronic Materials, Metals, and Solid State Chemistry as potential sources.

Fuller-Mora and Hess note that research on HTS can also address fundamental issues related to the understanding and consequences of strong electron correlations. “It seems fair to say,” they add, “that the community regards this as an important and intellectually challenging area of research.”

NSF considers proposals submitted under these programs to be “unsolicited” proposals. The Division of Materials Research accepts unsolicited proposals during a limited time window: from the third Monday in September through the first Friday in November (for 2007 that’s 17 September through 2 November). All NSF awards include a requirement for researchers to include activities that broaden the impact of the proposed research beyond the initial findings. This division has spelled out in detail the kinds of “broader impact” activities it expects to find in proposals for research funds.

NSF has a program encouraging international collaborations in materials and condensed matter research, the Materials World Network, which includes research in HTS. This program funds collaborations between American institutions and counterpart research organizations in some 42 countries. The deadline for 2007 funding closes on 20 November 2006, however. This program has made 133 awards since 2001, which suggests it will continue beyond this year.

For large-scale research in materials science, NSF offers its Materials Science and Engineering Centers (MRSEC) program, which issues calls for proposals every 3 years. The last MRSEC awards were made in 2005. The MRSEC program includes the Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials, which encourage collaborations in materials science research with minority-serving institutions.

New university-based scientists may want to consider NSF's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program as a source of funding. The CAREER program cuts across all disciplines and is reserved for assistant professors that have not yet received tenure. The next deadline for proposals is July 2007.

Applied research and development

The Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) funds R&D projects on electrical power distribution technologies that it considers to be commercially viable, including some related to superconductivity. In August 2006, NETL issued a solicitation for R&D on superconductivity power equipment. The procurement has three parts:

The deadline for proposals in all three parts is 10 January 2007. Proposals need to be submitted through Grants.Gov, the central U.S. government grant-funding portal.

Don Geiling, project manager for the solicitation, says that NETL is seeking to fund work on concrete applications and not basic research. “We want a demonstration of the technology by an end-user,” such as an electric utility, says Geiling. Groups competing for the grants will need to include participants with the ability to develop end-user products. The project is “industry rather than research driven,” Geiling notes. His colleague Susan Miltenberger, a procurement specialist, adds that “any domestic entities can compete” for the awards--but NETL will look for industry involvement in the project team.

Proposals on HTS submitted to NETL should use the current superconductivity solicitations described above.

Small business partnerships

DOE provides R&D funding for the development of second-generation (2G) wires and cables based on HTS coated conductors via its two small-business R&D programs: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR). For fiscal year 2007, which began 1 October 2006, DOE's SBIR/STTR programs (PDF, p. 163) are seeking proposals in the following HTS-related topics:

  • Effect of filament geometry on AC loss

  • Low aspect-ratio coated conductors

  • Cryogenic dielectric materials that can be integrated into 2G conductors

  • Novel ultrafast techniques to deposit epitaxial layers for low-cost 2G conductors

Both SBIR and STTR grants go to small businesses, but STTR funding requires substantial involvement of a not-for-profit organization, such as a university or research lab. SBIR grants require the PI to be employed by the small business. Science Career’s 2004 article tells more about these programs.

DOE operates its small business R&D programs in two and (in some cases) three phases. Phase 1 is for evaluation the scientific merit or technical feasibility of the concepts, with awards up to $100,000. DOE uses this phase to determine projects worthy of subsequent Phase 2 funding. Phase 2 awards of up to $750,000 are made to some of Phase 1 grantees. This is the main developmental phase for new technologies under DOE’s SBIR and STTR funding. Small businesses working with DOE can also apply for a Phase 3 award to pursue commercial applications of the R&D, but those funds must come from non-SBIR or STTR sources.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

In the U.K., the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funds research in superconductivity, including studies of HTS, under its Superconducting and Magnetic Materials sub-program. The subprogram offers £16,400,000 in grants, including support for five Advanced Research Fellows. See the EPSRC’s Funding Guide for details about its grant submission procedures.

Other funding sources

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

In the United States, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a unit of the U.S. Department of Defense, issues what it calls Broad Agency Announcements covering, as the name implies, a wide range of related R&D needs. One of DARPA’s current announcements, for Defense Sciences Research and Technology (as of November 2006), includes several requirements under materials sciences. One of the requirements specifies: “Materials and enabling technologies for power generation and energy storage at all scales”. The deadline for proposals is 9 February 2007.

DARPA says it is interested in “high-risk/high-payoff technologies that have the potential for making, in the 5-10 year timeframe, revolutionary rather than incremental improvements to national security, including emerging threats and operational challenges.” Proposals for incremental enhancements or integration of existing technologies will not be considered.

Naval Research Laboratory

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has a Materials Science and Component Technology Directorate that carries out research in materials science to support the U.S. Navy’s mission. The NRL’s Physical Metallurgy Branch and Center for Computational Materials Science conduct research in superconductivity. Like DARPA, NRL issues Broad Agency Announcements for its external research needs, and NRL’s most recent announcement includes a section on superconducting materials. Please note that the current announcement has a deadline for proposals of 31 December 2006.

Alan Kotok is managing editor of Science Careers.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers