The ‘Materials Master’

Seamus Davies, originally from Co Cork, is developing ‘super materials’ at Cornell University in the USA

Published in the Jan-Feb ed. of Science Spin

Imagine a laptop that works 1,000 faster than today? Or an electrical power grid that loses almost no electricity during power transmission, and is 99 per cent energy efficient? These things will become possible in the future if scientists can develop superconducting materials that operate at room temperature. These materials have a number of amazing properties, that can be exploited, but now they only operate at very low temperatures. This is the kind of problem that Seamus Davies,  Prof of Physics at Cornell University, and a native of Skibberean works on each day – a challenge he finds incredibly exciting.

1980s

Sadly, mass emigration has returned to Irish shores, but Seamus was part of the last great huge exodus out of Ireland in the 1980s. He attended UCC from 1979 to 1982, where he recalled the coursework as challenging and where the students took their studies very seriously. He left Ireland in 1983, heading for the University of California Berkeley, in the city of Oakland in the ‘Bay Area’. This move followed a well-trodden path for many UCC physics graduates. Seamus was collected at the airport by Stephen Fahy, who was then studying for his PhD at Berkeley, and today is the Associate Prof of Physics at UCC.

Seamus remembers being first interested in science at the age of six. The trigger was curiosity about the world, and how it operates as it does. By the time he was 13, an aspiration to become a scientist had turned into a definite goal. He got his secondary education at St Fachtna’s in Skibbereen and recalls science teaching there as superb.

He was specifically interested in physics. He applied for and was accepted into UCC, which had earned a reputation for having an extremely high quality physics program.

The success of Seamus, and many others like him of the 1980s generation, shows that emigration, while perhaps not what most Irish scientists want to do, does, at least, open up the possibility of a new life, and achieving great things. There are many un-heralded Irish-born scientists abroad, doing superb work and Seamus is definitely one of those. His experience shows that a science degree and PhD from Ireland are a license to the world.

BERKELEY

Certainly, there are worse places an ambitious young Irish scientist could have ended up than Berkeley, a truly world-class university, famous in particular for its prowess in physics, astrophysics and engineering. When an opportunity arose to go there, Seamus grabbed it, and he recalls the time he spent there from ’83 to ’89 as “wonderful” and “the best opportunity of my life”. Seamus was interested in ‘fundamental physics’, the type of physics that doesn’t necessarily have a ‘real world’ application. In many countries, including, Ireland funding for such work doesn’t exist. The US is one of the exceptions.

Seamus completed his PhD in Berkeley in 1989. He had a tremendous time, and loved every minute. Now, with the doctorate finished, it was decision time. Should he return home to Ireland or stay? He was offered a job as an Assistant Professor at Berkeley, and that made his mind up to stay in the US. In any case, if he returned home, it would have been virtually impossible to get funding to support his ‘fundamental’ line of research.

There were growing opportunities for scientists in Ireland, even back in ’89, but the research being funded, then as now, was research that could yield an economic return in the short or medium term. But for researchers like Seamus, who want to explore ‘basic’ science that might only have a long term pay-off, if at all, there were few opportunities.

The approach in Ireland, despite all the talk about innovation and becoming world-class research leaders, is the same today as it was 20 years ago. The agencies that fund science here do not want to support research that is considered expensive, risky and doesn’t pay off quickly. They are not prepared to risk funding truly innovative research. This is why for researchers like Seamus, Ireland has nothing to offer, both back then and still today.

Perhaps wisely then Seamus stayed on in the US, and spent 20 years in Berkeley. “It was fantastic, it felt like 3 or 4 weeks, but it was actually 20 years,” he said. “I met my wife, who is English, from Walden in Essex. She was a Professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Then we got married and had two boys.” The boys changed everything, as now the couple, neither of whom was from a big city decided they wanted to leave the Bay Area and work in a less expensive area that was ‘better for the kids’.

ITHAECA

That ‘better place’ became Ithaca – a beautiful university town that lies nestled in idyllic countryside in upstate New York, and home to Cornell University. This was a university that had just as famous a reputation in physics as Berkeley. Seamus became Professor of Physics at Cornell, and the family settled quickly finding Ithaca a far easier place to live. Here Seamus became associated with Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, another world-class physics institution, as well as St Andrews University, in Scotland.

Soon, he recommenced his researches into the nature of exotic materials such as super solids, super fluids, and super-conductors. These materials had astonishing properties, he said, with huge potential. Super-conductors should not be confused with semi-conductors – the latter being famously associated with microchip manufacturers such as Intel. The semi-conductors made by Intel are based on silicon, and their physical characteristics can be altered by adding impurities, for example. The semi-conductors are governed by the laws of physics as we know them, but super-conductors do not obey any such laws.

The potential is there, for example, explained Seamus to develop an electrical grid, using super-conducting wires, that is capable of transmitting electrical power with no losses, and absolute perfect efficiency. The current grids lose a lot of power during transmission, and this, of course, is a waste of a valuable resource, and results in more power usage. Similarly with laptops, there is substantial leakage of electrical power. This is why a laptop tends to heat up over time. A superconducting laptop would not heat up at all. It would be super power efficient, and it would vastly quick in performing computations.

It might come as a surprise to learn that superconductors have been known to scientists for almost 100 years, but researchers have not been able to harness their amazing capabilities in al that time. The reason for that is that superconductors only work at extremely low temperatures, something in the region of -250C. Until a way can be found to make them operate at room temperature, they will be of little practical use to society.

Seamus says that making super-conductors operate at room temperature is a “profound problem of physics”, but not so profound that it can’t be solved in coming decades. When that happens then super-conductors could be used for all manner of electrical devices, such as computers, laptops, and mobile phones and replace semi-conductors as the material of choice in most devices. But, the breakthrough in super-conductors is highly unlikely to be made here in Ireland, as there is no support for long-term basic research.

Ireland, or any country that is serious about its science, should have part of its ‘spend’  supporting research set aside for new ideas with potential, that might just as easily not yield an economic return, says Seamus. “You need some fraction of the portfolio to be associated with risky efforts based on new ideas that haven’t been explored before. There is no guarantee, but if you do nothing, there is a guarantee that you won’t succeed.”

ADVICE

Meanwhile, Seamus’ advice to students that are interested in science, and about to sit their Leaving Certificate in 2011, or 2012 is to be disciplined and focus on an objective. He says there is no better job in the world for providing the means to pursue one’s own curiosity and interests. His least favourite of the job is searching for funding for research.

He adds that professional scientists must be prepared to be highly mobile, and that he has Irish, Chinese, Korean, Israeli, Canadian, German, Portuguese, Taiwanese, Swiss, Scottish, and Indian nationals in his research group at Cornell University. So, his advice to students considering science is to worry about emigration issues. “I would ignore them because any high-level scientist will have to move from country to country anyway.”

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