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A Microcosm of High-Tc Opportunities

The discovery of high-critical-temperature superconductors (HTS) 20 years ago raised hopes for cheap and simple electrical systems that would operate with zero resistance near room temperature. Much hype surrounded their potential applications, including in magnetic-levitation transport with the maglev train, which still struggles to go beyond the demonstration lines due to scientific and economic limitations.

Today, HTS have made possible a range of new devices--loss-free power cables, transformers, magnets, microwave detectors, and magnetic field sensors, among others--yet people's lives, science-based industry, and scientific employment remain largely untouched. Although the superconductivity industry is thriving--today's global market reaches $4.5 billion, according to Conectus, a "consortium of European companies determined to use superconductivity"--recent reports claim that HTS represented a mere 1% of the global superconductivity market in 2004.

But there's life in the field yet, thanks in large part to the efforts of a few true believers. High-temperature superconductivity isn't a bust, they insist; the technology is just taking longer than expected to pay off. Conectus projections claim that HTS will take a 10% share of an $8 billion superconductivity market by 2010, mainly due to growth in the use of the materials for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in medical diagnostics. A look at the Italian HTS industry reveals new projects being funded in academia and new enterprises starting up. The sector remains small, but those true believers--pockets of enthusiastic scientists, most of them young--are working hard to commercialise HTS research and make a niche for themselves. The future of the industry--and the accuracy of those Conectus projections--may rest on their success or failure.

The funding situation: A barometer for employment opportunities

Currently, the Italian government is supporting HTS research projects at several Italian universities and national research institutes. The Italian National Research Council (CNR) is covering the field in two of its 11 strategic research areas: energy and transport, and materials and devices. Over the 2006 to 2008 period, about $10 million a year--three-quarters from the Italian government and the rest from commercial and European organisations as well as foreign governments--were allocated to a group of 10 advanced superconducting materials projects, some specifically addressing high-critical-temperature materials. Although a significant investment for a country the size of Italy--it's about 4% of the national funding allocated to materials and devices--this investment only supports about 50 researchers across the country.

Matteo Salvato, a superconductor researcher at the University of Rome "Tor Vergata" and a member of the CNR- National Institute for Matter Physics (INFM) Supermat laboratory near Salerno, warns that HTS materials are a very small research niche, and that employment prospects for young scientists in Italy are limited in both the public and private sectors. New academic initiatives have little chance of being funded unless they are associated with those few well-established programmes, such as the magnetic field sensors project at Naples University, theoretical studies and artificial superconducting structures in Rome, superconducting cables in Genoa, and superconducting ferromagnets at Salerno.

Because central university funding today covers little more than running costs, Italian academic research groups--with high proportions of researchers on temporary contracts--have to rely on external funding from government bodies and private enterprises. But HTS have been a low priority for industry too, says Salvato, and in search of funding and secure careers, "many groups in the universities are turning their attention to other types of materials--magnetic, dialectric--in the hope of converting their experience from HTS."

But Andrea Perali, an HTS researcher on a fixed-term contract at the University of Camerino, remains convinced that young scientists with Ph.D.s in HTS have pretty good prospects. Perali's university offers several 2-year renewable contracts--longer contracts in academia are hard to come by in any field in Italy--and he remains optimistic that new research avenues will open up. "It's quite probable that the discovery of new, interesting superconducting materials or creation of artificial superconducting heterostructures will periodically revitalise the HTS sector," he says.

Andrea Perali

Perali recommends that young scientists interested in the field exploit connections to related fields of research. "I think the physics of superconductors will become increasingly bound up with that of superfluids of trapped atoms, a sector in exponential growth. I'd suggest starting from a study of these fluids and then seeking ways to connect with HTS physics. It would probably then be quite easy to find at least short-term postdoc positions"--and that's not bad for a scientist in Italy. Perali also believes that young scientists hoping to build a career in theoretical work have some chances, as the mechanisms behind HTS are yet to be unraveled.

An industrial perspective

Several well-established Italian companies support HTS research in addition to their main lines of research and production. One chief player is ASG Superconductors, part of the Malacalza group of companies. ASG has been producing conventional superconducting magnets since the 1970s for applications in high-energy physics and thermonuclear fusion; more recently, the company has diversified its production to include HTS conductors. Another well established group in the field is Ansaldo, whose subsidiaries include the CRIS research consortium in Naples, which is active in developing superconducting films. Another giant in the field is Magneti Marelli, a multinational subsidiary of Fiat, which makes high-tech components for the automotive industry and collaborates with the University of Pavia on superconducting magnets.

But HTS research is not the exclusive province of giants. A few small spin-off and start-up companies have entered the scene in recent years with Italian government and European Union backing as well as private capital. One example is CESI Ricerca. Launched in early 2006 as a splinter group of 400 researchers from CESI (Italian Experimental Electrotechnical Centre), a company with experience in electricity and energy superconductors, CESI Ricerca dedicates one of its 20 labs, and a six-person team, to the development of HTS devices.

Marco Casolino

Still, "I certainly wouldn't advise a youngster to start" on the industrial path, says Perali. "The companies in this sector are few, and being still in their infancy, need few staff. And there isn't any sign of much imminent growth in the demanding superconductor market on the horizon," he adds. But Marco Casolino, a young National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) scientist at Tor Vergata University, sees potential in industry for precisely the same reason that Perali sees potential in academia: because new ideas (and in industry, new applications) keep emerging. Casolino has been working on the possibility of using superconducting magnets to deflect cosmic rays--an idea put forward by INFN researcher Piero Spillantini and funded by the European Space Agency. Casolino believes HTS remain a promising area, although it needs "enormous" investments.

Columbus Superconductors--A voyage of discovery

One illustration of the confidence some have in the long-term commercial viability of HTS is Columbus Superconductors, a Genoa-based start-up company that is already making a name for itself just 3 years after its foundation. This joint venture has "one of the best teams in the field in Italy," says Salvato. Columbus was funded by ASG Superconductors and a handful of young scientists and entrepreneurs from Genoa University and INFM-CNR who spotted a market niche after the 2001 discovery of the superconducting properties of magnesium diboride. Because this material is superconducting at 40 K, it is possible to operate with liquid hydrogen or gaseous helium rather than the more expensive liquid helium. The team's belief in the new material also stems from other characteristics such as low cost of raw material, low pollutant emission during production, and low product-maintenance costs, explains Giovanni Grasso, a co-founder of the company.

Columbus Superconductors started producing magnesium diboride cables this year. So far they have sold more than $380,000 worth, and sales are expected to rise rapidly. Meanwhile, the company is diversifying by devising new applications in energy and medicine: Together with MRI-imaging company Paramed and ASG Superconductors, Columbus recently completed the first prototype MRI system using magnesium diboride wires and produced the first images, they claim. The system soon will be presented in the United States.

In reaching these goals, the company is reaping the rewards of a mix of parent-company backing, long years of technical experience, and "careful market research and good investment planning," says Grasso. In his view, past forecasts for HTS applications overestimated financial support and lacked realistic market analysis. Learning from this, Columbus Superconductors chose to be self-financed in the initial phase, calculating that this would allow them to make money even with very low sales.

"Columbus is a very young company in all senses," says Grasso. Currently, it employs only a handful of people, but Grasso expects staff levels to reach 15 or 20 during 2007. The company has been granted two European Framework Programme FP6 Marie Curie research fellowships, which are still open to candidates. The company also has a number of current research collaborations with the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom as well as CNR; all told, four or five Ph.D. student and postdoc salaries are covered.

But beyond Columbus and a handful of other successful companies, Carlo Rizzuto, president of the company Sincrotrone Trieste and a Columbus shareholder, isn't optimistic about openings in the HTS field. "Young people will find opportunities here only marginally and indirectly," he says, "because these high-tech firms are not labor- or research-intensive." Still, opportunities for managers with hands-on experience should not be overlooked: The people filling such slots, he says, have to "understand the mechanisms of innovation and at the same time understand and capture what is emerging from research."

Casolino takes a very pessimistic view of the broader Italian scientific employment market. He calls the situation in Italy "catastrophic," mainly due to the lack of state funds and permanent positions. "It's the same in industry," he says, "since many contracts are short-term and with little security." But he sees hope in enterprises like Columbus Superconductors. "Initiatives like this," he says, "are laudable and very important, since they give flexibility and allow an eye to be kept on market niches, which very often the large industries do not reach." In this way, such companies allow their scientist-employees to create their own professional futures. "I would certainly recommend a new graduate or postgraduate to go for a career of this type, even if work in a semiconductor company, say, might seem more secure."

Like many other developing scientific fields, the evidence suggests that HTS are a gamble for those aspiring to a scientific career, in Italy and beyond. The perpetual Italian funding squeeze makes academic positions especially scarce. And although Columbus Superconductors may inspire, it employs only a few scientists and could be a hard model to follow. Still, Columbus Superconductors shows that it can be done, and that a few opportunities can be made or grabbed by those who keep faith in the technology's potential. "At strategic level," Casolino says, "superconductors have the best of themselves still to give, in areas that don't have the drama of the maglev train, say, but are perhaps more important."

Susan Biggin is a writer in Trieste, Italy.

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