Paul Chu, T.L.L. Temple Chair of Science and founding director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston, will lead a group of investigators as they build a one-of-a-kind piece of equipment designed to further their research and ultimately help make superconductivity and thermoelectricity more commercially viable.
The work will be covered under a $780,000 grant from the Department of Defense, part of the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program, which supports the purchase of state-of-the-art equipment to improve university capabilities or develop new capabilities to perform cutting-edge defense research and graduate student research training.
The total project award of $1.8 million includes matching funds provided by private endowments and funding from project collaborators.
Chu, best-known for his 1987 work with colleagues when they achieved stable superconductivity at 93 Kelvin, didn't want to buy off-the-shelf equipment. He requested funding to buy individual components, which he and other researchers will use to design and build a system that can study the interface effect on a variety of properties of materials.
"This will tell us answers to many of the fundamental questions," he said. "We want to study the interface effect not just on superconductivity, but also on thermoelectricity and magnetisms."
Chu's co-principal investigators on the project are Zhifeng Ren, professor of physics and principal investigator at the Center for Superconductivity; Shuo Chen, assistant professor of physics; and Bing Lv, research assistant professor at the Center for Superconductivity.
Currently, Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) equipment is basically one-material specific to avoid contamination, Chu said. He envisions building an integrated system that would be able to synthesize a variety of materials and investigate their microscopic and macroscopic properties, all inside the system. He said the researchers will design and construct the system, using the grant to buy basic components to provide the ultrahigh vacuum, ultraclean and cryogenic environment for layer-by-layer deposition with atomic precision; microscopic electronic and crystal structure determinations to nanoscale; and transport, magnetic and spectroscopic macroscopic characterizations.
Chu said the potential impact on the future development of materials - both from a scientific and commercial standpoint - make the effort in building the system both exciting and worthwhile, despite the challenges. He said he and the other UH researchers already have begun talking with experts from around the world to avoid any unnecessary mistakes.
Among their goals is to find superconducting materials with higher transition temperatures, known as Tc, as well as higher critical current densities, known as Jc. The new equipment will help with both, Chu said.
"Now, there are materials with excellent superconducting properties, but they are expensive," he said. "So, the goal is not just higher Tc or Jc, but also lower cost. For society, for a commercial product to be viable, a crucial factor is the cost."