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Special Feature: High-Tc Superconductors, Boom or Bust?

J. Georg Bednorz and Karl Alexander Müller's 1986 report of high-temperature superconductivity in lanthanum barium copper oxide (lbco) led to a frenzy of research activity and speculation. Many scientists changed directions, directing their attention to what seemed to be the richest theoretical problem in condensed matter physics. New research centers were established to understand, develop, and commercialize the new class of materials. Flying trains, loss-free electrical cables, ultrafast superconducting computers--a whole new industry, or several, seemed just around the corner. Soon, scientists riffing on the lbco theme produced new materials with ever higher superconducting transition temperatures and the liquid-nitrogen milestone was soon passed. In the opinion of many--although not all--experts, the future of the new science and the new technologies it promised was bright.

They were right about the science anyway. So far, the basic question--how do these materials carry current without resistance at temperatures much too high to be accounted for by the classical model of superconductivity?--has not been answered, as Adrian Cho reports (subscription required) in this week's Science. "The theoretical problem is so hard that there isn't an obvious criterion for right," says Steven Kivelson, a Stanford University theorist quoted in the Science story. "It must be close to unique to have so much information and so little consensus on what the questions should be," echoes Joseph Orenstein, an experimenter at the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Yet the problem has been a great driver of scientific progress, leading to a deeper understanding--and a deeper awareness of what we don't understand--about the behavior of highly correlated electrons in solids.

But what about the applications? If there is an industry based on high-temperature superconductors, it's still in its infancy. Almost all the current commercial ventures based on the technology remain dependent on government support, few have turned a profit, and venture investors are ice-cold on the technology. According to Conectus, a European consortium of superconductivity-related industries, high- Tc superconductors constitute just 1% of the $4.5 billion superconductor industry. So, although there are jobs in the high-temperature superconductivity industry, there aren't very many.

So are there jobs anywhere in the field? According to the people we talked to, employment in the field seem to fall roughly into three categories, as Andrew Fazekas illustrates in Career Prospects in Superconductivity. University and government labs worldwide offer first-rate opportunities for a few gifted scientists to work to understand the basic phenomenon of superconductivity and develop it in ways that will facilitate commercialization. That's the first employment category. The field's second employment category is, well, outside the field. Because the field draws (on the experimental side) on such a wide range of synthesis and characterization technologies, HTS experts are well equipped to work in other fields. Rather few, it seems, succeed in establishing careers in the field, but almost all find good work in related fields of science. Last comes a small--but apparently expanding--industrial employment market. So far the field hasn't lived up to its promise--but senior scientists and administrators in the field mostly agree that a few companies in the industry are approaching viability so the small industrial scientific workforce is likely to grow.

Italy is an interesting example of the status of the HTS industry outside the United States, as Sue Biggin illustrates in Italy: A Microcosm of High- Tc Opportunities. Thanks to the efforts of a few people who believe in the technology, Biggin notes, the Italian HTS industry includes both giants and very small companies.

The success of the industry, however, still depends in large part on success in the laboratory--and scientific research requires research funding. So Alan Kotok has written a U.S.-focused guide to HTS funding.

Jim Austin is the editor of Science's Next Wave and

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