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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 2064

Mr CHYNOWETH —My question is directed to the Minister for Science. What are the implications of recent breakthroughs in superconducting? What economic and social impact will superconducting have, and can it be of any benefit to Australia?

Mr BARRY JONES —Superconductivity is a physical phenomenon in which electrical resistance falls in wires or components as temperature falls towards absolute zero-that is, minus 273 degrees celsius, or zero degrees Kelvin. The lower the temperature, the smaller the resistance; so that, theoretically, at minus 273 degrees celsius electricity can flow forever in a circuit without any energy loss. But because of the cost of producing ultra low temperatures by enclosing circuitry under high pressure and liquid helium, it has not been possible or economically feasible to demonstrate or use superconductivity outside laboratories.

The other phenomenon is that all magnetic flux is expelled and the substances become perfect diamagnets. However, work in China, Japan, the United States, and here in Australia as well-announced almost simultaneously in March-indicates a new approach to superconductivity, that the phenomenon can operate at far higher temperatures. The upper limits are uncertain, but unconfirmed reports indicate that temperatures of plus 17 degrees celsius-that is, 290 degrees Kelvin- have been achieved. If this is confirmed, it will have enormous implications at several levels. The first involves power transmission, in that power losses can be reduced dramatically over long distances, something that will change the pattern of energy demands in the Western world. If, of course, that led to a decline in the demand for coal from Australia, it could have serious implications for us.

In relation to artificial intelligence, it will enable dramatic increases in the speed of computers and will eliminate unacceptable heat generation, making artificial intelligence-the National Party has normally associated the letters AI with artificial insemination, but it must now get up with the 1980s-a technical and economic reality, with all the attendant threats and opportunities there.

In regard to medical technologies, machines such as the nuclear magnetic resonator can be made much smaller and much cheaper. Supermagnets, which would be essential in fusion research and in some forms of transport-like magnetic levitation trains-could all be transformed by the use of superconductivity.

Most important for Australia is the development of the new industrial material for superconducting transmission-not a metal, as one might think, but a ceramic compound which is an yttrium-barium copper oxide. Australia and China are very rich in rare earths, but the tragedy has been that until now we have really had no commercial development of them. We have exported them for processing and then we have bought them back.

I am not suggesting that industrial application of superconductivity will be immediate; it will be some years down the track. But we should be looking towards the industries of the twenty-first century, and I hope that our industrial sector will have the brains, imagination and guts to devote attention to this vital area.