Magnetic-levitation is an application where superconductors perform extremely well. Transport vehicles such as trains can be made to "float" on strong superconducting magnets, virtually eliminating friction between the train and its tracks. Not only would conventional electromagnets waste much of the electrical energy as heat, they would have to be physically much larger than superconducting magnets. A landmark for the commercial use of MAGLEV technology occurred in 1990 when it gained the status of a nationally-funded project in Japan. The Minister of Transport authorized construction of theYamanashi Maglev Test Line which opened on April 3, 1997. In December 2003, the MLX01 test vehicle (shown above) attained an incredible speed of 361 mph (581 kph).
Although the technology has now been proven, the wider use of MAGLEV vehicles has been constrained by political and environmental concerns (strong magnetic fields can create a bio-hazard). The world's first MAGLEV train to be adopted into commercial service, a shuttle in Birmingham, England, shut down in 1997 after operating for 11 years. A Sino-German maglev is currently operating over a 30-km course at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China. The U.S. plans to put its first (non-superconducting) Maglev train into operation on a Virginia college campus. Click this link for a website that listsother uses for MAGLEV.
MRI of a human skull.
The Korean Superconductivity Group within KRISS has carried biomagnetic technology a step further with the development of a double-relaxation oscillation SQUID (Superconducting QUantum Interference Device) for use in Magnetoencephalography. SQUID's are capable of sensing a change in a magnetic field over a billion times weaker than the force that moves the needle on a compass (compass: 5e-5T, SQUID: e-14T.). With this technology, the body can be probed to certain depths without the need for the strong magnetic fields associated with MRI's.
Other related web sites worth visiting include the proton-antiproton collider page at Fermilab. This was the first facility to use superconducting magnets. Get information on the electron-proton collider HERA at the German lab pages of DESY (with English text). And Brookhaven National Laboratory features a page dedicated to its RHIC heavy-ion collider.
Electric generators made with superconducting wire are far more efficient than conventional generators wound with copper wire. In fact, their efficiency is above 99% and their size about half that of conventional generators. These facts make them very lucrative ventures for power utilities. General Electrichas estimated the potential worldwide market for superconducting generators in the next decade at around $20-30 billion dollars. Late in 2002 GE Power Systems received $12.3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to move high-temperature superconducting generator technology toward full commercialization. To read the latest news on superconducting generators click Here.
Other commercial power projects in the works that employ superconductor technology include energy storage to enhance power stability. American Superconductor Corp. received an order from Alliant Energy in late March 2000 to install a Distributed Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage System (D-SMES) in Wisconsin. Just one of these 6 D-SMES units has a power reserve of over 3 million watts, which can be retrieved whenever there is a need to stabilize line voltage during a disturbance in the power grid. AMSC has also installed more than 22 of its D-VAR systems to provide instantaneous reactive power support.
The General Atomics/Intermagnetics General superconducting
Fault Current Controller, employing HTS superconductors.
Hypres Superconducting Microchip,
Incorporating 6000 Josephson Junctions.
The National Science Foundation, along with NASA and DARPA and various universities, are currently researching "petaflop" computers. A petaflop is a thousand-trillion floating point operations per second. Today's fastest computers have reached "petaflop" speeds - quadrillions of operations per second. Currently the fastest is China’s Tianhe-1A, operating at 2.67 petaflops per second. The fastest single processor is a Lenslet optical DSP running at 8 teraflops. It has been conjectured that devices on the order of 50 nanometers in size along with unconventional switching mechanisms, such as the Josephson junctions associated with superconductors, will be necessary to achieve the next level of processing speeds. TRW researchers (now Northrop Grumman) have quantified this further by predicting that 100 billion Josephson junctions on 4000 microprocessors will be necessary to reach 32 petabits per second. These Josephson junctions are incorporated into field-effect transistors which then become part of the logic circuits within the processors. Recently it was demonstrated at the Weizmann Institute in Israel that the tiny magnetic fields that penetrate Type 2 superconductors can be used for storing and retrieving digital information. It is, however, not a foregone conclusion that computers of the future will be built around superconducting devices. Competing technologies, such as quantum (DELTT) transistors, high-density molecule-scale processors , and DNA-based processing also have the potential to achieve petaflop benchmarks.
In the electronics industry, ultra-high-performance filters are now being built. Since superconducting wire has near zero resistance, even at high frequencies, many more filter stages can be employed to achive a desired frequency response. This translates into an ability to pass desired frequencies and block undesirable frequencies in high-congestion rf (radio frequency) applications such as cellular telephone systems. ISCO International andSuperconductor Technologies are companies currently offering such filters.
Superconductors have also found widespread applications in the military. HTSC SQUIDS are being used by the U.S. NAVY to detect mines and submarines. And, significantly smaller motors are being built for NAVY ships using superconducting wire and "tape". In mid-July, 2001, American Superconductor unveiled a 5000-horsepower motor made with superconducting wire (below). An even larger 36.5MW HTS ship propulsion motor was delivered to the U.S. Navy in late 2006
The newest application for HTS wire is in the degaussing of naval vessels. American Superconductor has announced the development of asuperconducting degaussing cable. Degaussing of a ship's hull eliminates residual magnetic fields which might otherwise give away a ship's presence. In addition to reduced power requirements, HTS degaussing cable offers reduced size and weight.
The military is also looking at using superconductive tape as a means of reducing the length of very low frequency antennas employed on submarines. Normally, the lower the frequency, the longer an antenna must be. However, inserting a coil of wire ahead of the antenna will make it function as if it were much longer. Unfortunately, this loading coil also increases system losses by adding the resistance in the coil's wire. Using superconductive materials can significantly reduce losses in this coil. The Electronic Materials and Devices Research Group at University of Birmingham (UK) is credited with creating the first superconducting microwave antenna. Applications engineers suggest that superconducting carbon nanotubes might be an ideal nano-antenna for high-gigahertz and terahertz frequencies, once a method of achieving zero "on tube" contact resistance is perfected.
The most ignominious military use of superconductors may come with the deployment of "E-bombs". These are devices that make use of strong, superconductor-derived magnetic fields to create a fast, high-intensity electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) to disable an enemy's electronic equipment. Such a device saw its first use in wartime in March 2003 when US Forces attacked an Iraqi broadcast facility.
A photo of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, in the act of disintegrating ,
taken with the European Space Agency S-CAM.
According to June 2002 estimates by the Conectus consortium, the worldwide market for superconductor products is projected to grow to near US $38 billion by 2020. Low-temperature superconductors are expected to continue to play a dominant role in well-established fields such as MRI and scientific research, with high-temperature superconductors enabling newer applications. The above ISIS graph gives a rough breakdown of the various markets in which superconductors are expected to make a contribution.
All of this is, of course, contingent upon a linear growth rate. Should new superconductors with higher transition temperatures be discovered, growth and development in this exciting field could explode virtually overnight.
Another impetus to the wider use of superconductors is political in nature. The reduction of green-house gas (GHG) emissions has becoming a topical issue due to the Kyoto Protocol which requires the European Union (EU) to reduce its emissions by 8% from 1990 levels by 2012. Physicists in Finland have calculated that the EU could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 53 million tons if high-temperature superconductors were used in power plants.
The future melding of superconductors into our daily lives will also depend to a great degree on advancements in the field of cryogenic cooling. New, high-efficiency magnetocaloric-effect compounds such as gadolinium-silicon-germanium are expected to enter the marketplace soon. Such materials should make possible compact, refrigeration units to facilitate additional HTS applications. Stay tuned !