From `superinventor' to superconductor

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.

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.

Instead, he says, the company should have taken a lesson from the development of the vacuum tube and transistor by focusing on smaller-scale products that would introduce superconducting electronics to a skeptical market. ``You first establish credibility, and then you can embark on very significant endeavors, like building big computers. I argued that since we had a patent position, and if you establish credibility, then you essentially have the rest of the universe working for you trying to solve the other problems, which you will use for your mainframe business for free.''

Apparently IBM didn't buy the argument, so when it shut down its Josephson junction project, Faris left to form his own company to develop superconducting products based on his ``start small'' philosophy. With IBM's blessing, he took with him licenses for IBM patented superconducting technology. The result: a high-speed piece of test equipment that Faris claims will be a vital tool to people trying to design high-speed Josephson junction integrated circuits.

Faris began his journey to high-tech entrepreneurship from an orphanage school in Tripoli. When he was 16, he says, he was doing well enough in his classes at the orphanage school to travel with a Libyan handicrafts exhibition.

``I was to wear the national costume and sell stuff,'' he recalls. ``The first time I set foot in a foreign land was in Rome, on the way to London. I discovered a completely different world, so different from the Sahara. There were trees!'' From that moment, he says, ``My goal in life was to never return to Libya.''

He scored in the top 10 in a nationwide high school exam and received a full scholarship from Exxon. He earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of California at Berkeley. After returning to Libya to work in the oil fields, he headed back to Berkeley for his master's degree.

The incentive to go for his PhD came when Exxon got ready to send him back to Libya again, he says. ``I wanted to stay a student for the rest of my life because that would guarantee that I would not go back to Libya.''

While working on his PhD in electrical engineering and computer science, he was invited to apply for a job at IBM's research center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., where he joined the superconductor research team and received several company awards for his inventions.

Perhaps that's why when he's asked about how the US superconductor effort stacks up against that of Japan, which has been conducting research uninterrupted, he zeros in on what he sees as the US advantage.

``In the United States, at Bell Labs and IBM and other places we have guys who are wild. They invent things. They say, `That's my baby.' They push it. And no boss is going to stand in their way. ... As part of IBM saying no to the technology, there are guys that say yes, and make it happen. In Japan, they don't have that. So that's why I'm very optimistic that we are the true beneficiaries of this technology.''

As to the future of superconductivity, Faris sees no limit. ``Many physicists have the incentive to work on this because it's a Nobel Prize prize potential. Materials engineers have the incentive to invent the right recipe and patent it and make alot of money. ... We've exceeded critical mass in the number of people working on this throughout the world. There's no turning back.''

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