Competing scientists in Europe and the United States said yesterday that they had discovered microscopic structures in certain superconducting materials that might explain one of the mysteries underlying the transmission of electrical current with no resistance.
The discovery was made independently by a research group at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and another group at the IBM Research Division in Zurich, Switzerland.
Both groups conducted their research using very thin films of a high-temperature superconductor, a material that conducts electricity without resistance even at the relatively high temperature of liquid nitrogen, minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ordinary superconductors work only at temperatures around that of liquid helium, minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, and are therefore harder and more expensive to exploit in useful devices.
Although the discovery is unlikely to have any commercial use in the immediate future, it lays a theoretical groundwork for far-reaching research in a field heralded with great fanfare in the 1980s, when the first high-temperature superconductors were discovered.
Some experts have predicted that these substances could revolutionize many technologies, including clinical instruments, computers and electric motors.
The announcement of the discovery also highlights the intensely competitive character of a branch of science in which not only the scientists but the journals in which they publish their results are rivals.
In telephone interviews yesterday, members of the two research groups agreed that Los Alamos had been the first to send a report of its achievement to a scientific journal, on Dec. 27 to the journal Science.
The IBM group, headed by J. Georg Bednorz, recipient of a 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of high-temperature superconductors, submitted its report Feb. 15 to the British journal Nature.
Scientists involved say Science delayed printing the Los Alamos report until it learned that Nature was about to publish virtually the same work by the IBM group.
Each report is accompanied by striking photographs showing contours of single atoms embedded in crystal lattices.
The photographs show screwlike protrusions grown by a laboratory process on the surface of a crystal of a superconducting compound, yttrium barium cuprate.
These "screws" are thought by scientists at Los Alamos and IBM Zurich to explain one of the mechanisms permitting some high-temperature superconducting films to carry relatively high currents.
The IBM work is being published today in Nature, and the Science article is scheduled for publication tomorrow. Their contents were disclosed at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Cincinnati March 18, at which the two groups first learned of their identical conclusions.