An Interview with Amit Goyal

Amit Goyal is a SUNY Distinguished Professor and a SUNY Empire Innovation Professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. He is also the founding director of SUNY’s RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water) Institute. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventers (NAI), the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Materials Research Society (MRS), the American Physical Society (APS), the World Innovation Foundation (WIF), the American Society of Metals (ASM), the Institute of Physics (IOP), the American Ceramic Society (ACERS), and the World Technology Network (WTN). He serves on the National Academies, National Materials & Manufacturing Board (NMMB).


Goyal has received numerous accolades including the E. O. Lawrence Award in the inaugural category of Energy Science & Innovation. Other key honors include: ten R&D 100 awards over the years between 1999 and 2017, three National Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) Awards for Technology Transfer signifying passion for innovation and translation to industry, the 2012 World Technology Award in the category of Materials; and the 2010 R&D 100 Magazine’s Innovator of the Year Award for sustained innovations in the field of high-temperature superconductivity.


This year, Goyal was elected as a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Council on Superconductivity. He sat down with Superconductor Week to tell us about his career and how he sees the direction of superconductivity applications.


SCW: Dr. Goyal, welcome to Superconductor Week. Why don’t you start off by telling us a bit about your personal background?


AG: I was born and raised in India. I received my undergraduate degree in Metallurgical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur. I came to the United States in 1986 to pursue higher education.
SCW: You completed your undergraduate degree in 1986, the same year Bednorz and Müller first discovered a cuprate HTS, which “blew up” the field of superconductor research. What led you from aerospace engineering to materials science, and to HTS research specifically?


AG: I came to the University of Rochester to pursue a Master’s in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering in the fall of 1986 after completing my undergraduate engineering degree from IIT in the spring. My main interest back then was a combination of engineering and business management. In 1987, I was all set to join a leading MBA program in Boston when the news of the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of high temperature superconductors was announced and given to Bednorz and Muller.


There was immense excitement in the world in 1987 related to superconductors. Every newspaper and magazine, even non- scientific, carried articles about how these materials would change the world and the way we live. Prominent scientists likened the time in science to when transistors were first discovered fifty or so years back and how this changed the world we live in.


I thought to myself that I was at a unique moment in scientific history where I had the opportunity to enter a fledgling field, to become an expert and develop a scientific leadership position, and enable realization of all the envisioned large-scale applications of these materials that motivated the Nobel Prize. Rochester was also known in the field of superconductivity, historically, since the famous “Shapiro Steps” in superconductivity were discovered there. So, I decided to put the MBA on hold and pursue a doctorate in the field of high temperature superconductors, with the goal of developing innovative materials technologies for large-scale HTS applications. In order to realize these large-scale applications, kilometer-long, flexible, HTS wires had to be fabricated from the brittle, ceramic HTS materials at the price/performance metric equal to that of the copper wire that can be purchased at the hardware store.


SCW: You are consistently referred to as the most cited individual author in HTS research between 1999-2009, and have 88 patents to your name. You also have experience defending intellectual property and have worked with a number of companies that seek or have sought to produce commercial HTS wire. Have you licensed your research to commercial entities, and if so, can you go into detail about some of these collaborations? Is TexMat LLC, a company you control or used as a vehicle to license patents?


AG: Yes, I do have 88 issued patents - most of these are licensed - and a majority of these relate to HTS conductors. Most of these patents are owned by the USDOE lab where I was working for about 25 years, the Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL). I acquired the rights to some select inventions and these were then filed as national and international patents. TexMat LLC is an intellectual holding company that owns these patents and licenses them. There are two key patent portfolios that TexMat LLC owns. The first relates to the integration of semiconductors with biaxially-textured substrates to enable large-area, single-crystal-like flexible semiconductors for all kinds of semiconductor applications including solar cells, transistors, LED’s, and so on. The second relates to the incorporation of self-assembled, nanoscale columnar defects in HTS conductors. This technology is needed to fabricate the world’s highest performance HTS wires in high-applied magnetic fields.


There are two important patent and related patent portfolios that are owned by UT-Battelle LLC, which manages and operates ORNL. The first is for RABiTS technology, which is now used by AMSC, Deutsche Nanoschicht/BASF, and other companies in Europe and Asia. The second is LMOe-enabled IBAD-MgO technology, which is essentially being used by every company using IBAD substrates, including SuperPower, MetOx; Fujikura, SuNAM, SuperOx, Shanghai Superconductor, and so on.


Today, essentially all HTS wire manufacturers worldwide use at least one of these platform innovations to fabricate kilometer-long, high-performance HTS wires, that is, the RABiTS substrate technology, the LMOe-enabled IBAD-MgO substrate technology, and the self-assembled, nanoscale columnar defect technology.


SCW: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments in advancing HTS technology?


AG: My early fundamental research related to studies of grain-boundary characteristics of assemblages of grain boundaries in the best polycrystalline superconducting wires of all HTS-types. This established that in order to fabricate high-performance wires, kilometer-long, flexible, single-crystal-like HTS wires were needed to obtain the required performance levels since high-angle boundaries suppressed current flow. This understanding was a huge advance in applied superconductivity and suggested that continued processing optimization of unoriented polycrystalline HTS wires would not get us to the required performance levels. From a market application perspective, the wires had to be fabricated at the price of, or approaching that of, Cu wire. This was a seemingly impossible goal since the largest single-crystal grown by man is Si and it is only 18” in diameter and 1.5 long. In addition, it takes a long time to grow this Si crystal and it is a very expensive process. These goals were appreciated worldwide as the Holy Grail in applied superconductivity.


This research finding then led me to develop unique innovations and routes for realizing this flexible, single-crystal-like HTS wire that could be fabricated in a low-cost and scalable manner. The RABiTS process was one route exploiting thermo-mechanical processing to fabricate single-crystal-like substrates followed with heteroepitaxial deposition of single-crystal-like buffer layers and superconductors in kilometer-long lengths. Companies such as AMSC which had invested over $100 million in equipment for 1G HTS BSCCO wire manufacturing and had essentially established an operating factory for 1G HTS wire production, abandoned that approach and licensed and adopted this 2G RABiTS process since it offered the needed performance and a price-performance metric approaching that of copper wire.


The LMOe-enabled IBAD-MgO process that we developed at ORNL involved development of a key RMnO3 buffer layer, in particular a LaMnO3 buffer layer, integrated on the IBAD-MgO substrates invented at Stanford and further developed at Los Alamos National Lab. The original IBAD process was developed by Fujikura in Japan. The LMOe-enabled IBAD-MgO process was licensed by SuperPower and is used for all of their HTS wires. This process is now used by essentially all the wire manufacturers worldwide using the IBAD process.
The second Holy Grail in the field of HTS was to significantly enhance the intragranular superconducting properties via improving flux-pinning or vortex-pinning for applications in high-applied magnetic fields. It had been shown elegantly that this could ideally be accomplished using heavy-ion irradiation, which produced amorphous, nanoscale damage tracks at nanoscale spacing, dramatically improving properties. However, the challenge in the field was to accomplish such a modification without using the heavy-ion irradiation that was impractical to scale-up, was extremely expensive, and also rendered the metallic layers in the wire radioactive. The strain-driven, self-assembly of non-superconducting nanocolumns at nanoscale spacing technology addressed this need and has revolutionized fabrication of high-performance HTS wire manufacturing worldwide. These HTS wires are now enabling numerous large-scale applications, such as nuclear fusion, superconducting transmission lines, high-field magnets, generators, motors, fault-current limiters, etc.


SCW: You spent a lot of time in upstate New York working on your Master’s and PhD at Rochester, and then spent many years at Oak Ridge. What brought you back north, given your career at ORNL, to SUNY Buffalo? Was it the offer of the RENEW Institute directorship?


AG: I joined the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in December 1990, so really I was there for about four years in total. My PhD at Rochester was in Materials Science & Engineering, and my thesis was focused on the processing of HTS materials.
I joined ORNL in a post graduate position and then worked there for about 25 years in various roles. I was at the peak of my career and achieved the highest scientific position at ORNL as a Corporate Fellow and a Battelle Distinguished Inventor. Corporate Fellows are a select group of highly accomplished individuals and characterize innovation, dedication, and significance of extraordinary contributions to research and development at ORNL/UT-Battelle.
I was also the chair of the Corporate Fellows Council and advised ORNL senior management on scientific and technological issues and opportunities. The Council served as a channel for communication between the ORNL scientific and technical staff and senior management, and articulated the ideas and concerns of the staff regarding the objectives and directions of the Lab. In my role as chair, in partnership with the then ORNL deputy laboratory director, we established the high-profile Wigner Distinguished Lecture Series that attracted Nobel Laureates and other distinguished people to inspire our scientists. SUNY Buffalo was conducting an international search for a senior and accomplished individual to lead their unique multidisciplinary RENEW Institute and reached out to me. I was recruited to join to lead the Institute as founding director.


The RENEW Institute attracted me for several reasons. It is clear that the USDOE labs such as ORNL are among the best facilities in the world for conducting advanced science and engineering research with numerous expensive equipment and advanced facilities. However, their mandate is primarily focused on science and engineering. The RENEW Institute positioning offered the possibility to take science and engineering and combine it with economics, health, medicine, sociology, arts, law, management, architecture and planning in a unique multidisciplinary manner. Many universities around the world recognize the need for such multidisciplinary, convergence-based research, but SUNY-Buffalo was bold enough to actually establish an institute like the RENEW. So, while I was at the peak of my career at ORNL and in a position that every scientist there would like to get to, I accepted the offer to lead and establish the RENEW Institute. This is especially consequential since at that time several leading universities were also contacting me in regards to even more senior academic roles.


SCW: Please tell us about RENEW’s mission.


AG: The RENEW Institute is one of the most expansive initiatives launched by SUNY-Buffalo in recent years. It is a multidisciplinary institute that harnesses the expertise of more than 100 faculty members across seven schools and colleges and has 20 additional faculty lines to add new faculty. It is an outcome of the UB 2020 vision to position UB as one of the premier research universities in the country, fashioning an institution that will lead and shape the world in the 21st century. The Institute cuts across seven schools and colleges: the School of Architecture and Planning, the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Law School, the School of Management, the School of Public Health and Health Professions, and the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Its research positioning spans a significant portion of the university’s research portfolio. RENEW promotes interdisciplinary research activities to position UB as a global leader in select areas of energy, environment, and water, with a special emphasis on societal impact.


SCW: In 2019, you received the President’s Medal for your contributions to the university. Please tell us about the RENEW Institute’s accomplishments so far.
AG: The Institute has attracted and hired 19 multidisciplinary faculty, including tenured, tenure-track and research, with areas of expertise specifically targeted to fill technical gaps identified in the strategic planning. It has already enabled the development and submission of over 350 research grant proposals, as well as directly or indirectly enabled the publication of over 500 publications and over 300 presentations. The Institute has assisted in garnering roughly $40 million in external funds, and has established cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, 21st-century, RENEW Shared Instrumentation Labs to provide the university a distinctive edge in terms of capabilities.


RENEW’s external engagement includes a sponsored project with the city of Buffalo, corporate interactions, and collaborations with international universities in several countries. It has established a high-profile lecture series which has attracted many renowned visionaries: the RENEW Distinguished Lecture Series in Energy, Environment and Water Sustainability seeks to promote dialogue and interaction with UB's faculty, students, and the local community stakeholders with renowned leaders in science, technology and policy in academia, industry, and government. This lecture series was modeled after the Wigner series at ORNL. The Institute is now established and my key role as founding director is done.
SCW: Do you see the application of HTS wire in power transmission as a key component of reducing carbon emissions?


AG: Superconducting transmission lines offer a major size advantage and significantly reduce the total electrical losses for high capacity transmission and hence significant energy efficiency. This leads to a minimized environmental impact and enables an overall more sustainable transmission of electric energy. They also have a massive capacity. Standard conductors based on copper and aluminum at the same capacity require enormous amounts of material, and the environmental impact of producing so much copper and aluminum is high because the required processes are energy intensive and dirty. So HTS transmission lines are far more energy efficient and have far less environmental impact from a manufacturing perspective.


SCW: How can HTS otherwise improve societal outcomes? Where do you see new superconductivity research taking us, for example, in currently “hot” fields like fusion and quantum computing?


AG: HTS products can offer numerous societal benefits and impact. HTS wires are a resistance-free alternative to conventional wires that carry 100 times the amount of electricity. An HTS wire is oil-free electrical equipment that is environmentally benign, with half the energy losses and half the size of conventional alternatives. In addition, products enabled by HTS wires use far more sustainable manufacturing processes with significantly less environmental impact. Addressable markets are estimated to exceed hundreds of billions of dollars annually within the next the decade or so.


The 2G HTS wires based on the RABiTS and LMOe-based IBAD MgO technology are required for all large-scale HTS products, and are enabling all kinds of niche applications. Such wire allow applications in very high-applied fields and thus enable the fabrication of very high-field magnets needed to contain plasma in fusion reactors, allowing companies like Commonwealth Fusion Systems to be established, with the goal of realizing commercial fusion. By enabling practical nuclear fusion, this technology could truly solve the world’s energy problem in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.


Some other areas in which I expect to see advancements based on HTS technology are in offshore wind turbine power generation, energy storage, and the development of all-electric vehicles such as ships and planes. In addition, in the medical field, high-field NMR and open MRI machines could operate at higher temperatures and therefore be more commercially widespread due to less cost intensive cooling requirements. I think the next decade alone will see massive large-scale applications of HTS materials and technologies, and I envision massive integration into our societal infrastructure, in particular in the electric power grid over the coming decades.


SCW: What advice do you offer to researchers just beginning their careers?


AG: My career was driven by an end goal: to make the numerous envisioned applications of HTS materials a reality. I worked on solving whatever obstacles or fundamental challenges presented themselves along the way to reach this goal. This required me to learn, develop expertise and specialize in different areas at various times of my career and solve fundamental problems that emerged. Once the fundamental challenges were solved I moved onwards and addressed the next obstacle in the path of achieving that goal.


Most people spend their entire career focusing on one fundamental issue or area and are not driven by an end application goal. I have found that having a clear, long-range goal is very inspiring for innovation. That is what I will recommend to all who are inclined this way: to have an end goal to strive towards in your career and develop new skills and specializations as needed to solve the obstacles along the way to this goal. This way, one ends up doing both truly cutting-edge fundamental research, which can potentially get published in top journals such as Science and Nature, and also results in patents and innovations, which enable practical use and societal impact o the technologies developed.


SCW: Thank you for your time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.