November 1989

Mildred S. Dresselhaus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Panel Chair)

Robert C. Dynes, AT&T Bell Laboratories

William J. Gallagher, IBM

Paul M. Horn, IBM

John K. Hulm, Westinghouse Corporation (retired)

M. Brian Maple, University of California, San Diego

Rod K. Quinn, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Richard W. Ralston, Los Alamos National Laboratory


To study and assess the state of the art of Japanese R&D in superconductivity, the panel first prepared a preliminary assessment of the state of the art in the United States. In ten days, the panel visited three university, eleven industrial, and seven government laboratories. Panel members interacted with Japanese leaders in superconductivity R&D and with many younger, active researchers. The panel then prepared appraisals of Japan's basic superconductivity program, materials research, large-scale applications, materials processing, and electronics applications, including thin-film R&D.

The panel found that Japan has a deep, long-term commitment to superconductivity R&D in industry, academia, and national laboratories. This commitment could be seen in several factors -- such as the number of people involved in superconductivity R&D, which was about the same as in the United States, although the Japanese population was less than half that of the United States at the time of the panel's visit in 1989. Several five- to ten-year superconductivity projects were in place, sponsored by MITI, the Science and Technology Agency (STA), the Ministry of Education (Monbusho), and Japanese Railway.

Because of its perceived scientific and technological importance, superconductivity had been selected as a flagship to show the world that the Japanese could be successful in fundamental scientific research. Although the Japanese had been extremely successful in advanced technology and commercialization, they were criticized for their lesser contributions to basic research. To answer this challenge, the Japanese were taking bold steps to enhance their basic research effort in superconductivity. This included increasing support to leading academic groups, establishing MITI's International Superconductivity Technology Center (ISTEC), strengthening their infrastructure for basic research, and promoting personnel exchanges with foreign countries. The panel judged Japan and the U.S. to be comparable in basic experimental studies and materials research, but the Japanese were improving rapidly and competing strongly.

The Japanese identified superior materials as the key to success in high temperature (high-Tc) superconductivity research and technology. They were translating this philosophy into a sustained, systematic approach to materials synthesis and processing, including new materials research. Most of the outstanding achievements of the Japanese in the field of superconductivity stemmed from this systematic approach, which was reinforced by a top-down management structure and an appreciation of the people who did materials synthesis, processing, and scale-up. The Japanese were leading the United States in their ability to mount sustained, systematic materials R&D programs, and they had a better trained work force to implement such programs. However, although Japan's top-down management system may be excellent for reinforcing sustained, systematic research, it could be less conducive to creativity.

In basic science, interaction between groups in different Japanese organizations in industry, university, and government laboratories was not as strong as in the United States, although teamwork within an organization tended to be stronger. With government leadership, the Japanese were taking steps to break down the interorganizational barriers by funding large interuniversity programs, establishing R&D consortia such as ISTEC, and encouraging strong project-related interorganizational collaborations (which, however, tended to be in applied areas). Examples of interorganizational efforts in applied areas were the Josephson Scientific Computing System project and the Multi-Core Project in Superconductivity. The latter was aimed at developing high-Tc superconductors to the point of commercialization. The government had successfully encouraged technology transfer from government laboratories to industry in the areas of large-scale superconducting magnet projects and low-Tc Josephson junction electronics.

Japanese universities' facilities and infrastructure for superconductivity research had steadily improved, so that the best Japanese universities were equipped nearly as well as their U.S. counterparts. The equipment and facilities for superconductivity R&D in Japanese industry and national laboratories were equal or superior to those in the United States and were steadily improving. Research opportunities in Japan had begun to attract foreign talent, despite the large social and language barriers.

The Japanese had developed a strong industrial base for the large-scale application of low-Tc superconductivity. While U.S. consortia were being organized to enhance technology transfer, the Japanese already had a ten-year history of successful technology transfer in large-scale superconductivity applications. R&D personnel at the national laboratories had worked collaboratively through the R&D cycle with electrical industries and with wire and cable companies. These collaborations had produced an array of large magnet systems for magnetic fusion, high-energy physics, magnetic levitation, power generation, and magnetic resonance imaging applications. Japanese capabilities in superconducting wire for the next generation of magnets (above 15 tesla) significantly exceeded U.S. capabilities, and the gap was widening.

Low-Tc Josephson digital capabilities at four Japanese laboratories far exceeded those at any laboratory in the United States. One overwhelming achievement of the MITI superconducting electronics project was low-Tc digital chip technology, which provided a model of technology development and transfer through a national laboratory-industry collaboration. By 1989, Japan dominated digital Josephson technology, and Japanese companies were well positioned for possible future commercialization.

However, because the United States had greater analog superconducting device expertise, U.S. efforts in these devices were well advanced over those in Japan. Because early high-Tc electronics applications would very likely be in analog devices, the United States was considered to be well positioned to lead in these areas. U.S. leadership would be threatened, however, if superior low-Tc technology remained the norm in Japan, and if the analog device expertise in Japan grew in conjunction with expanded superconducting thin-film and electronics developments. The Japanese were maintaining strong low-Tc electronics programs as a critical component of their superconducting technology development effort.

Japan and the United States were both strong in superconductivity R&D. Thus they would have many opportunities to work together and learn from each other. Because the Japanese placed greater emphasis on sustained, systematic materials research, they were offering the United States strong competition in research and were developing the potential to pull ahead in commercial applications.

Published: March 1994; WTEC Hyper-Librarian