The U.S. Patent Office indicated the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will receive a patent on a process for making flexible ceramic superconductors, moving superconductor technology closer to the marketplace, MIT officials said.
The Patent Office issued a "notice of allowability" last week, signaling it will award the patent within a few months, said John T. Preston, director of MIT's technology licensing office.Preston said MIT has licensed exclusive rights to the patent to a company founded last year by four of the institute's faculty members. MIT officials refused to disclose the terms of the licensing agreement with the company, American Superconductor Corp. of Cambridge.
Ever since two researchers at an International Business Machines Inc. laboratory in Switzerland discovered ceramic superconductors in January 1986, scientists around the world have been racing to develop and apply the new materials. The IBM researchers, Georg Bednorz and Alexander Mueller, won the 1987 Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery.
The advantage of ceramics is that they attain superconductivity, the ability to conduct electricity with virtually no resistance or energy loss, when cooled with liquid nitrogen to about 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Previous superconductors had operated at no higher than 418 degrees Fahrenheit, requiring cooling in liquid helium, which is more expensive and difficult to handle than liquid nitrogen.
Eventually, scientists hope to develop superconductors that will work at room temperature, which could revolutionize the computer, transportation and power transmission industries.
A major stumbling block is that the materials developed so far are brittle and tend to break.
MIT's process combines the ceramic superconductors with a noble metal, such as silver, gold, platinum or palladium, forming a composite that is relatively flexible. In addition, MIT officials said, the composite is more resistant to oxidation and more easily connected to sources of electricity than previous materials.
The process was developed by MIT professors Gregory J. Yurek and John B. Vander Sande, two of the founders of American Superconductor Corp. Yurek said in an interview that the company plans to enter joint ventures with corporate partners in a wide range of industries to explore commercial uses as soon as possible.