Building a Superconductive Future

Ambature and researchers in Waterloo are collaborating on high temperature superconductive materials for a more energy-efficient future

Imagine a world where clean electricity is plentiful and cheap because currents can be transmitted along power lines without any resistance or loss of energy. 

Imagine electronic devices operating without ever getting hot. Or technologies ranging from levitating trains to quantum computers becoming easier and less expensive to operate. Or your doctor having a small version of an MRI machine sitting on a desk in his office.

Those are just a few of the possible applications for high temperature superconducting materials that can conduct electrical currents without any resistance at room temperature, or even refrigerator temperatures, rather than the ultra-cold temperatures, below -138°C or -216°F, that materials known as cuprates need to be cooled to in order to become superconducting. Achieving this superconducting state of matter at higher temperatures has been a decades-long dream for researchers around the world.

Today, Ambature, Inc., a company from Scottsdale, Arizona that has an office in Waterloo and a research and development collaboration with researchers at the University of Waterloo, is working on technology that could help turn that dream into reality.

The collaboration between Ambature and the University of Waterloo was enabled by the Transformative Quantum Technologies (TQT) initiative that brings researchers together with industry partners to accelerate the process of turning the seemingly magical power of quantum mechanics into revolutionary real-world technologies. 

As part of that initiative, academic institutions in Canada, including the University of Waterloo, have formed a Quantum Colaboratory (Quantum Colab) to share research and development facilities and expertise in order to bring quantum technology to life. Ambature is one of the companies leveraging the availability of the Quantum Colab facilities and expertise here in Canada.

“The original mission of Ambature was to provide for ubiquitous clean energy for the entire world. That is a big statement but that is literally what high temperature superconductors can do,” says Ambature’s chief executive officer Ron Kelly. 

“But behind door number two is making products that you can’t even contemplate today, or, with the technologies that are there, we can make them smaller and more cost-effective.”

Kelly has had an extensive background in building several Waterloo companies including Medicalis (which eventually became part of Siemens AG). “This is my fourth company in the Waterloo Region that has a close collaboration with the university,” Kelly says. 

“Waterloo had particular attributes that we needed, including big engineering, access to the quantum equipment and access to the people with expertise.” 

“You need expertise and you need equipment in order to do what we do,” Kelly adds. “The university provides an opportunity to access phenomenal equipment, testing equipment and a very high calibre cleanroom. We have access to people who we can pay on a piecemeal basis to help with the testing.” 

Mitch Robson, research and development scientist for Ambature who works at the offices in Waterloo is able to get this access to people and equipment to help with the technology research and development.

It is an exciting field with so many possible applications, Robson says.  “It can enable smart cities, autonomous vehicle-related applications and so many different technologies”  

Scientists have known about superconductivity for over a century and there are already applications in everything from maglev trains to MRI machines. But to achieve superconductivity, materials usually have to be cooled to extremely low temperatures, which is costly and limits the uses. The holy grail is to create superconducting materials that work at room temperature, or even, for that matter, normal refrigerator temperatures.

Ambature has patented technology for thin films that can be shaped into much more efficient and flexible superconducting circuits. The thin films are built from a composite material made of yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO). It is a cuprate, but the unique design of the material developed by Ambature will help researchers in their push for superconductivity at higher temperatures.

What is unique is the architecture of the films that allow the current to flow along the “a-axis” in a vertical direction as well as the horizontal direction. This is a big advantage over the more conventional “c-axis” materials in which the current can move only in the horizontal direction. 

“With the c-axis, you’re limited to everything staying in a plane. One of our distinct advantages, in using the a-axis, is that we can stack materials to create more complex circuits, more complex structures,” Robson explains.

This allows for easier fabrication of what are known as “Josephson junctions,” a key part of any superconducting circuit technology that allow pairs of electrons to move from one superconductor to another. 

Test results last year showed that Ambature’s material is high quality and can be made into Josephson junction devices. Moreover, “we have designed these materials in a way that that they can be actually manufactured on a mass commercialization basis in any foundry in the world,” Kelly adds.

The technology can help solve the problem of parasitic heat which comes from electrical resistance in devices. In quantum computing, better superconducting materials with high quality Josephson junctions can help the quantum bits or qubits remain in a coherent superposition state of both “0″ and “1” in order to carry out the quantum computations.

The next step is to continue developing the Josephson junction devices and creating more complex circuits on these materials, Robson says. Kelly adds that with the support of facilities available at the University of Waterloo through the Quantum Colab partnership, the plan is to start prototyping the technology and get it on the path to commercialization.

Kelly joined Ambature about nine years ago, but for a time the research was on pause as the company focused on filing patents to license its intellectual property in countries around the world. But now, with granted patents securing Ambature’s intellectual property, the high quality a-axis thin film growth and the tests demonstrating that prototypes are possible, Ambature is gearing up its research and development in Waterloo.

The combination of an Institute for Quantum Computing and Quantum Colab facilities in Waterloo as well as Kelly’s past experience with growing companies in Waterloo Region caused him to decide that “Waterloo was the right environment at the right time for the company.”

He describes it as a symbiotic relationship, with both Ambature and Waterloo benefitting from the collaboration. The company ultimately plans to scale up in Canada. The Waterloo-Toronto corridor is a great location because of the access to highly qualified graduates who understand quantum technology, he adds.

“We’re a quantum platform, first and foremost, and there are not many places where you can go where you can find what we have found in Waterloo.”