Superconductivity Fueled New Era of Energy Research

By Jeannie Kever

As seen in this circa 1980s photo, Paul Chu captured the scientific spotlight with his early breakthroughs in superconductivity

A discovery nearly 30 years ago at the University of Houston set off a frenzy, with scientists around the world joining in after physicist Paul Chu and his colleagues created the material that brought high-temperature superconductivity into the modern era.

Huge strides in energy, medicine, transportation – anything that involved electricity – seemed possible, now that a material able to carry energy without any loss due to resistance was within practical reach.

The work was fueled by his passion for science and research. “But in the back of my mind, it was for application,” Chu said. “People knew this had promise.”

Zhifeng Ren, now a physicist at UH, was a graduate student in China when he read about the discovery. “ There was so much hope it would change the world overnight,” he said. “Of course, it didn’t happen. Science takes time.”

That moment in January 1987, when Chu and members of his team created a material based on a compound of yttrium, barium and copper oxide, known as Yttrium 123, has had a lasting impact on both UH and Chu. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1989 and remains in demand as a speaker and scientific collaborator. In August, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers presented him with the Max Swerdlow Award for sustained service to the applied superconductivity community, the latest in a string of honors.

“He’s a worldwide figure,” said Allan Jacobson, Robert A. Welch Chair of Science and director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH (TcSUH), founded just months after Chu’s discovery. “As a result, the center is internationally known.”

Chu brought in scientists working in related fields from the beginning. Jacobson was part of the Corporate Research Laboratories at Exxon Research and Engineering Company and an expert on superconductivity and energy materials when he joined UH in 1991. Ren was recruited from Boston College in 2012. Ren is now M.D. Anderson Chair professor of physics and principal investigator at the Center for Superconductivity.

Superconductivity was discovered in 1911, but until 1987, high– temperature superconductivity meant 420 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, far too cold for most applications. Chu’s work, building on research at IBM Zurich, brought it into real life.

With their discovery in 1987, first of superconductivity at above 77 degrees Kelvin, and later that month at 90 degrees Kelvin (about 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) Chu’s team created a material that could be cooled with liquid nitrogen, dramatically reducing the cost.

Superconducting materials now are used for energy generation, storage and transmission, as well as for ultra-fast and ultra-sensitive signal detection, levitated trains and magnets for magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

Much of the innovation has taken place at TcSUH, where Chu is founding director and chief scientist, TLL Temple Chair of Science and professor of physics. (He spent eight years as president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology while maintaining his research here, returning to UH in 2009.)

Today, Yttrium 123 remains a popular material, and Chu still holds the record for high-temperature superconductivity – now at 164 degrees K (under pressure). He and members of his lab also continue to develop new materials, as competition once again intensifies.

“There are high-paying jobs at stake for the eventual winner,” said Alan Lauder, executive director of the Coalition for the Commercial Application of Superconductors and a member of TcSUH’s advisory board. “And that needs to be the United States, and Texas and Houston.”

Much of the innovation has taken place at TcSUH, where Chu is founding director and chief scientist, TLL Temple Chair of Science and professor of physics. (He spent eight years as president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology while maintaining his research here, returning to UH in 2009.)

Today, Yttrium 123 remains a popular material, and Chu still holds the record for high-temperature superconductivity – now at 164 degrees K (under pressure). He and members of his lab also continue to develop new materials, as competition once again intensifies.

“There are high-paying jobs at stake for the eventual winner,” said Alan Lauder, executive director of the Coalition for the Commercial Application of Superconductors and a member of TcSUH’s advisory board. “And that needs to be the United States, and Texas and Houston.”


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