The story of the scientists who described the world’s first technical high temperature superconductor and formed a team to commercialise their discovery.

The Robinson Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington was formed in January 2014.

The team of 25 scientists, engineers and students was previously the superconductivity and energy group at Callaghan Innovation and Industrial Research Ltd (IRL). IRL was formed when the Department of Science and Industrial Research (DSIR) was dissolved in 1992.

The Institute is named to honour the late Bill Robinson who was a physicist, seismic engineer and director of the Physics and Engineering Laboratory at DSIR. His support of research into superconductivity was instrumental in establishing the team that now bears his name.

New high temperature superconductors

Drs Bob Buckley and Jeff Tallon—DSIR physicists with diverse research interests—began exploring superconductivity in novel ceramic compounds in the 1980s.

When a group of Japanese scientists published the details of a new high temperature superconducting (HTS) material in 1987 (but not its structure), teams around the world raced to identify the compound with such remarkable properties.

Buckley, Tallon and their colleagues joined in and eventually identified the compound as BSCCO-2223 using an electron microscope image, but assumed other groups around the world would have beaten them to it. Tallon, however, thought they should note their discovery, since the new material might have value in the future, and recorded the details on a brown paper lunch bag brought back from the canteen. The group continued with work to characterise the material and its properties.

Some months later, when no news of a breakthrough had come from researchers in Japan, Europe or the United States, Tallon retrieved the filed bag and drafted a patent application, then published their discovery in Nature. This seminal paper brought international recognition for the team.

Patent battles

Large international corporations who had also been researching HTS, fought the patent claims rigorously. Beginning soon after the patent was granted in 1988 and culminating in Tallon taking the stand as inventor in a depositions hearing in 1994, the battles for the rights to use the new material were vigorous and protracted.

Tallon was the only inventor prepared to give evidence in court—the opposing inventors would not—and describes the intensive legal interviews with such high consequences for a single slip-up as “completely draining.”

The patent withstood several more appeals and delays and was granted in the United States in 2004. Now, along with many others protecting the team’s subsequent discoveries in the area, the patented technology is licensed to industry partners and forms a platform for New Zealand’s HTS industry.

Prime Minister’s Science Prize

Buckley and Tallon won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Science Prize in 2009. The prize is awarded to an individual or a team that has made “a transformative discovery or achievement that has had a significant impact on New Zealand or internationally”.

The prestigious award recognised the pair’s discoveries in high temperature superconductors and the way the technology had been used to establish world-leading export businesses from HTS products in New Zealand.

Spin-off companies

GCS Ltd, a joint venture between Industrial Research Ltd (IRL) and General Cable was formed in 2007 to make HTS Roebel cable for customers worldwide. It is now wholly owned by Victoria University of Wellington.

HTS-110 Ltd was formed in 2010 to develop HTS magnets for industrial applications, which are now in use worldwide. The company employs close to 20 staff and is located in the Gracefield Innovation Quarter.