Superconductor electronics (SCE) research could advance a range of commercial and defense priorities, with potential applications for supercomputing, artificial intelligence, sensors, signal processing, and quantum computing.1 Unlike traditional semiconductor materials, superconductors have zero electrical resistance. This allows processors to move bits without any dissipation of energy, resulting in much lower energy consumption than standard electronics. For now, many technical hurdles remain before SCE achieves commercial viability, and the field as a whole remains relatively small, with around 100 papers published globally per year. But several countries, particularly the United States and Japan, have recognized the promise of superconductor electronics and have funded research in this space for many years (see Table 1 later in this brief).
This brief identifies the countries most actively contributing to superconductor electronics research and assesses their relative competitiveness in terms of both research output and funding. To do so, it leverages CSET’s Map of Science, a database that has grouped most of the world’s publicly available academic publications into clusters based on citations. After identifying the research clusters most closely associated with SCE-related research, the brief offers country-by-country breakdowns of research productivity and funding data across the two primary SCE-related clusters. Details of this methodology can be found in the next section.
The analysis yields two key findings:
- The United States and Japan collectively account for a large majority of output in SCE-related research. China produces a growing amount of SCE-related research, while the European Union produces a declining amount. The United States is especially dominant in highly-cited SCE-related research.
- The United States and Japan also have highly active government funding programs related to SCE. The United States and Japan not only produce the most SCE-related research, they also have government funding agencies that promote SCE-related programs. In particular, the United States’ global leadership in SCE-related research since 2016 may be related to the activity of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity’s (IARPA) Cryogenic Computing Complexity program, which began in 2014.2
These results suggest that government investments in SCE-related research and other emerging hardware paradigms will be an important lever for ensuring the continued competitiveness of the United States and its allies. This is important because skepticism about the U.S. government’s ability to promote domestic microelectronics innovation has had negative consequences for American competitiveness in the semiconductor industry in the past.3 The results also suggest that while the United States and its allies are currently well-positioned to lead in SCE-related research and subsequent commercialization, this could change quickly if China continues to ramp up investment in SCE.
Of course, success in basic research may not equate to subsequent commercial success. If SCE displaces traditional semiconductor technologies for some applications, this could send ripples throughout hardware supply chains, perhaps eroding the dominance of the United States and its allies in the current supply chain.4 Nevertheless, this brief suggests that allied cooperation and sustained government funding may influence when and where superconducting electronics and other emerging hardware paradigms are developed.
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- The 2020 IRDS CEQIP report, discussed later, defines superconductor electronics as “[using] circuits and components at least some of which are in the superconducting state.”
- Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “IARPA Launches Program to Develop a Superconducting Computer,” December 3, 2014, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/news-articles/news-articles-2014/item/1146-iarpa-launches-program-to-develop-a-superconducting-computer.
- Alex Rubin et al., “The Huawei Moment” (Center for Security and Emerging Technology, July 2021), https://cset.georgetown.edu/publication/the-huawei-moment/.
- For example, EUV photolithography equipment—critical for manufacturing the most advanced logic chips, and supplied only by the Dutch firm ASML—is currently not required for fabricating the most advanced superconductor chips (though whether it will be needed for commercially-viable superconductor chips remains uncertain). Changes in equipment and other inputs required for making the highest-performing chips could generate opportunities for firms in China and other strategic rivals of the United States to enter the market.