Paul Chu has demonstrated that his passion for research is his driving force as a scientist, as he returns to UH with new goals after serving as president for a university in Hong Kong for eight years.
“I was born a scientist. I want to die a scientist,” Chu said.
While at UH full time, Chu is using a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to search for new materials that may become superconducting at higher temperatures.
“We are trying to develop a new superconductor with a transition temperature up to room temperature,” Chu said. “If it cools below a certain temperature, it loses buoyant existence to electricity. Because of that, you can use it to generate, transmit and store energy with 100 percent efficiency.”
In 1987, Chu and his team made history when they attained superconductivity at 77 degrees Kelvin with the compound yttrium barium copper oxide. Now, they are striving to go further.
“The highest record is 164 degrees Kelvin. That record was established by us in 1993. Unfortunately, no one has been able to break the record, including us,” Chu said. “If we can do that we can get all this superconducting technology without cooling, because it’s already superconducting. That would have a profound impact on our lives. It would be an industrial revolution.”
Finding new superconductors is just one of the three major goals Chu has along with the Houston International Materials Forum, an initiative that he founded. The second goal is to make UH and Houston the center for material research, he said.
Chu said he also plans to talk at the University Center to share this information with students and researchers.
“If some of the researchers are good, we will provide fellowships to work with any of these people either here or at other universities,” Chu said.
The third goal is to create a low cost, low fuel MRI machine.
“Usually that technology (MRI) is expensive, a couple thousand dollars. Developing countries can’t afford this technology,” Chu said. “We would like to use this knowledge to develop technology, using high-temperature superconducting wire to make a magnet and sensors which will be more sensitive, to build this MRI machine, which will be lighter, more mobile and not use cryogenics or even liquid nitrogen. Right now, they all use liquid nitrogen.”
Chu won the National Medal of Science in 1988 and is now serving his last year on the president’s committee for selecting National Medal of Science recipients.
During his time in Hong Kong, he juggled three jobs. As president for the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, he continued performing duties as a professor and executive director for the Texas Center of Superconductivity, returning to Houston at least once a month.
“I always dreamed of becoming a president of a university,” Chu said.
His days are far from typical, as he is constantly invited to speak at universities around the country. Last Friday, he was invited to speak about his approach to get room temperature superconductors at the American Physic Society meeting in Portland, Ore.
“Also, I talked to some Japanese colleagues and was invited to talk about superconductors at the University of Tokyo,” Chu said.
Chu still remembers when he was a student in Taiwan and what drove him to become scientist.
“In that part of the world, when I was a young boy in Taiwan, which was very poor, they always looked to the West to see why they were so rich and strong,” he said. “We felt that the reason was the science and technology, so at that time, I believed that was the way to build China — through science and technology.
“Also, at that time two Chinese men won the Nobel Prize. To us, that was encouragement because previously we thought the Orient could not do well in science … But that really gave us confidence. That’s why I got into that (physics), without return.”
Even Chu’s days are hectic, his job is a labor of love.
“I think in science, knowledge is limitless. It’s a very exciting area to be only if it coincides with your interests,” Chu said. “Being a scientist is the best job because I am doing my hobbies and also get paid.”