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US and Japan jockey for lead in new superconductor industry

A transpacific race is shaping up to uncover and exploit the technological potential of the new superconductors. On one side sits the United States, a scientific powerhouse that is tired of seeing Japan take US-developed technology to market with better results than American companies.

On the other sits Japan, whose manufacturing and marketing prowess have spawned dozens of how-do-they-do-it? books. They are tired of being accused of making money off someone else's discoveries. Japanese scientists are working furiously to remain at the cutting edge of basic research on the new materials.

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It's a race with enormous stakes. If the new materials prove practical, and especially if the temperatures at which superconductors work can be pushed higher, ``intuitively you know that the market will be larger than you can imagine,'' says Richard Arons, a member of the advanced materials group at PA Technologies.

That market potential stems from the fact that superconductors carry electricity with no losses; carry more current and generate larger magnetic fields than an equivalent amount of their normal-conductor counterparts; and can be made into ultrasensitive detectors and into lightning-fast electronic switches that could form the basis of a new generation of small, exceptionally swift computers. And the new superconductors in particular show promise of doing these tasks at temperatures that, while frigid by any standard, are easier and cheaper to work with than the current generation of very low temperature superconductors.

``Too often, laboratory breakthroughs in America are turned into commercial realities by Japanese companies,'' says Sen. Dave Durenberger (R) of Minnesota, citing transistors and videocassette recorders as examples. ``The stakes are too high to let superconductivity go the way of the VCR industry.''

When it comes to government research money, the edge appears to be with the US. According to the US Commerce Department's Office of Microelectronics and Instrumentation, the federal government spent some $44.1 million on superconductor research as of May 1987. This figure for the current fiscal year does not include money spent by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization or by the National Security Agency.

About half of that money has been redirected toward studying the new high-temperature superconductors, says Adriaan De Graaf, director of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) division for materials research.

This is not to imply that everyone is satisfied with funding levels. ``We should be talking tens of millions of dollars, not $600,000'' that the NSF has made available for 12 so-called ``quick-start'' grants for research into processing the new materials, says Donald M. Smyth, director of the Materials Research Center at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

As for Japan, Shinroku Saito, president of the Technological University of Nagaoka and president of Japan's newly formed New Superconducting Materials Forum, notes that between 1984 and 1986, Japan's Ministry of Education spent some $4.1 million to research new superconducting materials. Japan's Atomic Energy Research Institute is spending $7.6 million this year to develop superconducting coils and magnets for nuclear fusion reactors. And Japan's Science and Technology Agency spent $13.8 million over five years on a superconductivity program that ended last year.

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As with the US, much of the Japanese government money going into studying the new materials is being shifted from other superconductor research as labs switch from work with older superconductors to the new ones, says Thomas Owens, who monitors international scientific programs for the National Science Foundation. ``There's no crash program to date,'' he says.

``I see the US ahead in the short run,'' says John Hulm, vice-president for corporate research at Westinghouse Electric Corp. ``But the industrial battle has yet to take place. We have a chance. Like semiconductors, the initial products will be made in the US. After that, it's a matter of deployment of resources and commitment.''

Some of that commitment is already being displayed. In February, US reseachers announced that they had discovered a superconductor that could be cooled with liquid nitrogen, as opposed to the much colder liquid helium; the next month more than 100 Japanese companies, universities, and research institutes formed the New Superconducting Materials Forum. It's purpose is to exchange information on superconductor research.

``I was quite shocked when a vice-president of an important Japanese electronics company came to visit recently and pulled out brochures on the future of high-temperature superconductors,'' says Robert Doremus, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry has yet to throw its full weight behind the effort to develop the new superconductors, says MIT engineering Prof. H.Kent Bowen, who recently returned from Japan. Although no one doubts the ministry will play a major role in the effort, much of the drive so far has come from Japanese industries, especially those that are already in the superconductor and electronics fields. Indeed, Dr. Bowen points out that among many of the major industrial players - names like Hitachi, Fujitsu, NEC, Sumitomo Electric, and others - there is a strong feeling that the ministry should keep its hands off efforts to develop the new superconductors.

``If you look at various areas where the Japanese excel, ceramics is one of the first. Semiconductor packaging is another,'' says Bill R. Appleton, director of the solid-state division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Those are two capabilities that will be needed to take advantage of the new materials.

What many find most formidable is Japan's approach to developing technologies: patience, persistence, coordination, and close attention to the development of manufacturing processes that runs parallel with scientific research. The challenges posed by this array of skills have not gone unnoticed.

In Washington, legislation has been introduced to establish a National Commission on Commercial and Defense Applications of Superconductors. The commission would study ways to encourage development of the new superconductors. Six national labs have been organized so that three are looking at the physics of the new materials, while the other three look at fabrication issues.

In an effort to get a jump on manufacturing techniques, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is planning to spend ``tens of millions of dollars a year'' to ``develop as quickly as possible an industrial base for the processing, fabrication, and manufacturing of these new superconducting ceramics,'' says Craig I. Fields, deputy director for research at DARPA. He says that DARPA has already told some of its ceramics contractors to shift gears and begin looking at ways to produce the new materials. While the industrial techniques developed by the DARPA program will not be classified, he adds, the agency will protect the patent interests of companies or organizations developing the methods. At the same time, he says, the agency will encourage companies to license technologies they develop.

In the meantime, states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas have provided seed money to help set up corporate-university consortia to develop the new materials.

Given these and many other efforts to keep the US in the running, what are the prospects for the transpacific race? Says Dr. Appleton, ``I give us no better than a 50-50 chance of getting beat.''

Last of a series. Previous articles ran July 13 and 14.