IRL scientists Dr Bob Buckley and Dr Jeff Tallon, whose work is in the field of high-temperature superconductivity (HTS), were jointly awarded the inaugural Prime Minister’s Science Prize of $500,000 on 9 March 2010.
“It is wonderful to be recognised through this new award, which I feel acknowledges the world-leading efforts of the entire team. Bob and I have had wonderful support over the years in assisting us in our research,” says Dr Tallon.
Superconductivity means the conduction of electricity with no resistance or energy loss during transmission. It occurs in some materials when they are cooled to very low temperatures. Far more efficient at transmitting energy than copper, superconducting materials have the potential to revolutionise the way we use and distribute energy.
Superconductivity was first discovered by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911. However, the barrier to using superconductors in industry has been the very cold temperatures (around -269°C) required and the actual cost of cooling the superconductors to this temperature. Traditional low-temperature superconductors only become operational at the temperature of liquid helium, and the cost of this was too expensive for industrial use.
New ceramic compound
In the 1980s, Drs Buckley and Tallon discovered a new ceramic compound that began to superconduct at comparatively warm temperatures (-163°C) and enabled the use of liquid nitrogen as a coolant. This is important commercially because liquid nitrogen is much easier and cheaper to produce than helium and it has fewer practical problems in cooling systems.
This ground-breaking method of transmitting electricity with no resistance made science news around the world, including in the prestigious international journal Nature. After patenting their discovery, the pair (in collaboration with a growing team of New Zealand scientists and engineers) spent the next 20 years refining their techniques and working on applying this new technology for industrial use.
Dr Buckley, who manages the development of the technology for commercial use at IRL, says he was excited to hear he had jointly won the award.
“Winning this award shows that science is now being recognised for the contribution it makes to New Zealand’s future economic wellbeing. While we are proud of the scientific achievements we have made, the real pay-off for New Zealand will be witnessed in the next decade as HTS technology starts to make an impact in the global marketplace.”
The work of Drs Buckley and Tallon has resulted in the formation of the company HTS-110 (aquired by Scott Automation in 2011 then reverting back to an independent company in 2021), which develops powerful HTS magnets for industrial applications and General Cable Superconductors (GCS) for customers around the globe.
The scientists have said that $400,000 of the prize will go to IRL for the continued development of the technology.
Read more about the research that won Bob Buckley and Jeff Tallon the 2009 Prime Minister’s Science Prize.