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From `superinventor' to superconductor

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 1987

Elmsford, N.Y.

To Sadeg M. Faris, the recent breakthroughs in superconductor research are ``not unlike the impact that the industrial revolution had on our lives. ... There is nothing affecting our lives'' which will not be touched by superconductivity. That sweeping statement, spurred by recent gains in finding materials that lose their resistance to electricity at higher-than-imagined temperatures, is widely shared by those in the field. But Dr. Faris, a former IBM scientist, speaks from the added perspective of an entreprenuer. His company is the first to go commercial with an electronic device using integrated circuits based on a superconducting switch known as the Josephson junction.

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Like others in the field, Faris is quick to tick off a list of applications for superconductors. They include:

Transportation. Trains using superconducting magnets could zip along at high speeds, lifted off their tracks by intense magnetic fields. ``The cooling aspect'' of recently discovered surconducting materials ``is much cheaper and therefore much more economically viable,'' he says.

Electric power generation. With superconducting power lines ``from Niagara Falls you can transmit power to New York City with very little loss. You can have huge superconducting rings which could actually store electrical power indefinitely with no loss. So you can imagine having a solar plant which would store energy in these superconducting rings so that you could use it at night.''

Medical research. Special high performance superconducting sensors could be used for ``imaging the functions of the brain, advancing our understanding of the brain.''

Defense. Superconducting devices operating at extremely high frequencies will lead to very high resolution radar, he says, adding that such radar could also be used by civilian aircraft to avoid collisions. In addition, the breakthroughs could lead to more rapid development of high-performance sensors designed to detect ballistic missile warheads hurtling through space or submarines lurking off coastlines.

But it's clear that his pet interest lies in the competition between the US and Japan over computers.

At the heart of the competition is speed. According to Faris, conventional computer chips are fast approaching their speed limits as switches. And because such devices and the lines that connect them resist the flow of electricity to varying degrees, they dissipate some of the energy flowing through them as heat. So once conventional solid-state devices reach their limit for switching speed, the only way to make computers faster is to pack the elements closer together to reduce the amount of time it takes a signal to travel from one element to another. The degree to which designers can cram components together depends on their ability to get rid of the heat.

That's where superconducting components come in. Josephson junctions switch at least 1,000 times faster than their conventional counterparts. And because superconducting components generate less heat, in principle they can be packed more densely than conventional technologies. That translates into smaller, faster computers.

The trouble, Faris says, is that major engineering hurdles lie between the fabrication of a Josephson junction chip and integrating them into complex networks known as computers. Many of those hurdles prompted IBM to abandon its Josephson junction computer research in 1983, he says, after the company invested 14 years and some $300 million in the project.