BOSTON — HIGH-TEMPERATURE superconductors could become a super industry for United States companies.
A field that opened in 1986 as a Nobel Prize-winning discovery is moving steadily toward the marketplace. The latest signals came via announcements this week involving two major corporations, the US Department of Energy, and smaller firms specializing in developing superconducting materials.
Longer term, visionaries predict revolutions in technologies affecting goods ranging from computers to trains - particularly if materials are discovered that can be used at room temperature. By some estimates, high-temperature superconductors could expand into an $8 billion to $12 billion industry by the year 2000.
The immediate prospects are modest, building on work done with low-temperature superconductors: cellular-phone network components; imaging devices capable of detecting explosives, illegal drugs, or flaws in construction materials; medical-imaging equipment; and highly efficient electric motors and utility transmission lines.
Superconductors are materials that, unlike typical conductors, carry electricity without resistance. Until 1986, superconductors had to be chilled with expensive liquid helium at about -270 degrees C, which required bulky refrigeration. ``High temperature'' superconductors can be operated with warmer liquid nitrogen at about -196 degrees C, reducing the cost.
THIS week, two projects were announced in Boston indicating further progress:
* IBM Corporation and Quantum Magnetics of San Diego have a development and licensing agreement to produce magnetic-sensing systems using high-temperature superconductors. The systems could have law-enforcement applications such as detecting plastic explosives, cocaine, heroin, or other materials difficult to detect by X-rays or other means.
* In conjunction with the US Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), American Superconductor Corporation and Pirelli Cable Corporation will join forces in a $5.8 million, three-year project to produce a prototype high-voltage cable that could become the high-power transmission line of the future.
Twenty percent of the nation's high-voltage lines are likely to need replacement within the next 10 years, and demand for electricity is expected to double by 2030, according to an EPRI spokesman. A utility could double its capacity to carry electricity by replacing an old cable with a superconducting cable.
In a few weeks, Superconducting Technologies Inc., based in Santa Barbara, Calif., is expected to announce a deal to supply high-temperature superconducting components to manufacturers of cellular-phone systems. These components would greatly increase the efficiency with which cellular networks use scarce radio channels.
True to early predictions, high-temperature superconductors are making their fastest strides toward commercialization in small-scale microelectronic, or ``thin film,'' applications. Yet ``it looks like the market will eventually split 50-50 between wire and thin-film products,'' says Theodore Rudd O'Neill, an industry analyst for H. C. Wainwright & Co., a Boston investment firm.
O'Neill speculates on a $10 billion global market by 2000. But Sir Martin Wood, founder and deputy chairman of Oxford Instruments, a British firm specializing in superconducting magnets, cites the possibility of a worldwide market of $60 billion to $90 billion by 2010.
Yet Sir Martin also points to several stumbling blocks, including the complexities of the materials involved in the newer superconductors; the need so far to keep temperatures low to ensure reliability even in the newer materials; an industry that does not respond easily to change; the difficulty non-scientists have in seeing the potential of the new materials; and the tendency of many development projects to remain in academia rather than move to industry.
O'Neill acknowledges the hurdles but says the emergence of high-temperature superconductors is on a faster track than is the biotechnology industry. The equipment to make the new superconductors is not as exotic or expensive as biotech equipment, he says, and there are no regulatory hurdles.
Direct investment opportunities are better in the US than in Europe and Asia, where most of the superconductor work is done in government laboratories or private labs within large corporations, he says.