Federal prosecutors filed a motion Friday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to drop a case against a Temple University physicist accused of helping Chinese organizations illegally obtain U.S. technology. The government’s case against Xiaoxing Xi had rested on a “misunderstanding” of the technology involved and the nature of scientific collaborations, according to Xi’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg.
In a 14 May indictment, the government alleged that Xi, a well-known expert on thin-film materials, schemed to pass information about a device known as a Pocket Heater—a proprietary U.S. technology used to make magnesium diboride superconducting thin films—to Chinese entities in order to help them become leaders in the field of superconductivity. Federal investigators obtained Xi’s email exchanges with colleagues in China, and cited four messages in charging Xi with four counts of wire fraud. In June, Xi pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The email exchanges concern “routine academic collaboration,” says Zeidenberg, a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm Arent Fox LLP. And the technologies discussed, he says, “were not restricted in any way.” In one email, Xi offered to help build a world-class oxide thin-film lab at a Chinese university; the exchanges, Zeidenberg says, had nothing to do with either the Pocket Heater or MgB2 thin films. Xi says he bought the heater to test variations of his own method for making MgB2 thin films at his lab here, and the Pocket Heater was one of the devices tested. Contrary to the indictment’s claim that the Pocket Heater “revolutionized the field of superconducting magnesium diboride thin film growth,” the device is only a modified version of an earlier invention by a German scientist, Xi says.
In an interview with ScienceInsider, Xi says he does basic research only and publishes the results openly. “I do everything on the table.” It’s not clear to him what might have triggered the government’s investigation. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “If you ask me for advice on how to avoid this situation, I really don’t know … and that’s the scary part. It could happen to anybody.”
The experience has been traumatic for Xi and his family. Early in the morning on 21 May, he awoke to loud knocking at his front door. “I came downstairs not even fully dressed," Xi says. "To see armed agents bursting into my home was like a nightmare.” Xi, who posted a statement online on Saturday, has been on administrative leave at Temple; he says he would like to return to teaching and research as soon as possible.