What Are Super Conductors?

The ideal superconducting state is characterized by two fundamental properties, which are the disappearance of resistance when the temperature is reduced to a critical value, and the expulsion of any magnetic flux in the material when the critical temperature (Tc) is reached.

Superconductivity was first discovered in the element mercury, in 1911. Other elements have subsequently been found to exhibit superconductivity and theories have been developed to explain the phenomenon. The critical temperatures for these materials were typically about 10 K (−263°C), which meant that they had to be cooled with liquid helium at 4 K.

In general these materials have been of academic interest only because they could only support a low current density in a low magnetic field without losing their superconducting properties. In the 1950s a new class of materials was discovered. These are the metallic alloys, the most important among them being niobium titanium and niobium tin.

The highest critical temperature achieved by these materials is 23.2 K and they can be used to produce magnetic flux densities of over 15 T. The main commercial application for these low-Tc superconductors is for magnets in medical imaging equipment which require the high fields to excite magnetic resonance in nuclei of hydrogen and other elements.

The magnet or solenoid of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) unit has an internal diameter of about 1.2 m and the patient to be examined is put into this aperture. The image from the resonance test shows unexpected concentrations of fluids or tissue and enables a diagnosis.

Superconducting magnets producing high magnetic fields are also used in magnetic research and in high energy physics research; other applications such as dc motors and generators, levitated trains, cables and ac switches have been explored but the complexity and high cost of providing the liquid helium environment prevented commercial development in most cases.

In late 1986 a ceramic material LaBaCuO was discovered to be superconducting at 35 K and in 1987 the material YBaCuO was found to have a critical temperature of 92 K. Since that time the critical temperatures of these new high temperature superconducting (HTS) materials has progressively increased to over 130 K.

Examples of these are BiSrCaCuO (with a Tc of 106 K), ThBaCaCuO (Tc of 125 K) and HgBaCaCuO (Tc of 133 K). The enormous significance of these discoveries is that these materials will be superconducting in liquid nitrogen, which has a boiling point of 77 K and is much easier and cheaper to provide than helium.

Much work has been directed towards finding materials with higher Tc values but this has remained at 133 K for some time. However, considerable effort with resulting success has been directed to the production of suitable HTS conductors. The HTS material is very brittle and it is deposited using laser deposition onto a suitable substrate tape.

The tape is 3 mm wide and cables of up to 600 m in length have been produced. There are many trials being made of the application of the HTS cables throughout the world including USA, Europe and Japan. There are prototypes of power transformers, underground power cables, large motors and generators, and fault current limiters in active development and in use.

The electricity supply of the City of Geneva in Switzerland is completely provided by power transformers wound with HTS conductors. Detroit is being re-equipped with HTS power cable for its transmission system and copper cables weighing over 7 tons are being replaced with HTS cables of less than 0.12 tons. These and other developments will help to establish the long-term feasibility of the HTS material. It is expected that there will be definite power saving from the use of HTS.

Small-scale applications which use HTS material include SQUIDS (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices) which measure very low magnetic fields. They are applied in measurements in biomagnetism (investigations of electrical activity in the heart, brain and muscles) and in geophysics for the study of rock magnetism and anomalies in the earth’s surface.

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