What would a world be like where superconductive
applications were commonplace?
Whether at work or at home, nearly all our everyday activities
involve the consumption of electricity. For infrastructure used
in transporting and converting energy – power lines, transformers
and generators of all kinds – the mastering of superconductivity
would result in a dramatic reduction in energy losses caused by
conductor resistance. It would also bring about a substantial increase
in machine performance. That would mean significantly lower total
energy consumption for our societies. In addition to this economic
benefit, it would also contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions
and help combat global warming in a wider context.
But there is more to superconductivity than the absence of electrical
resistance. Research conducted over nearly a century (see The long
and winding road) has shown that the magnetic effects of superconductive
materials open the door to a vast field of potential applications
which remain largely unexplored. The development of medical imaging
is one major example. This has a very promising future when you
consider the services such diagnostic tools could provide if they
were available in every GP's surgery.
The development of Maglev trains – prototypes of which are
already in operation in Europe and Japan – that 'levitate'
above the rails, thereby virtually eliminating energy loss caused
by friction between the train and its tracks, is literally a case
of 'deinventing the wheel'.
Other applications are also in the pipeline, particularly in the
area of electrical energy storage. Then there are the environmental
technologies, such as 'magnetic filtering' processes to purify the
water or air in cities 100 times more efficiently than present methods.
The arrival of superconductive electronics is expected to have
a huge impact on the increasingly important field of information
and communication technologies. Apart from the explosion in the
speed and power of computers, there would also be a macroeconomic
impact in terms of the allocation of energy. In the United States,
it is estimated that the energy consumption resulting from the huge
increase in Internet use will soon represent 10% of the total electricity
distributed by the networks.
Economic prospects for the applications of superconductivity
at a worldwide level (in € millions)
|Scientific devices destined for use in research
|Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
|New electrotechnical applications
|New electronics applications
|Estimate of total worldwide market
|Market shares for LTS(1)
|Market shares for HTS(1)
The green countryside
near the prestigious Oxford University is home to one
of Europe's – and, indeed, the world's –
leading firms in super-magnetic, superconductive applications.
Founded in 1959 by the research couple Martin and Audrey
Wood, Oxford Instruments provides a genuine case study
of the entrepreneurial appliance of science.
Its founders believed in their work
and were ready to take a risk. The helium-cooled superconducting
coils made at the time were still experimental machines,
laboriously and expensively constructed in the laboratory.
There were few applications for high magnetic fields
and nobody would have banked on the importance they
would assume in the future.
But the founders of Oxford Instruments
were on to a good thing. Provided, that is, they could
continue to invest in research and to innovate as soon
as new applications were ready to find a market. Four
decades later, of the more than 20 000 super magnets
operating worldwide – in the field of medical
imaging (1) or for scientific uses (especially the physics
of matter and the life sciences) – 55% carry the
Oxford Instruments’ logo. Add to that the large
number of cryogenic equipment and superconducting wires
the company sells.
Apart from the three sites in Oxfordshire,
the firm has also built up a vast international network
of subsidiaries and dealerships in Europe (Germany,
the Netherlands and France), the United States and Japan.
This multinational structure employs some 2 300 highly
As the tried and trusted reference
in 'low temperature' superconductivity, Oxford Instruments
was clearly destined to embrace the new wave HTS when
they hit the headlines 15 years ago. It is now very
much involved in research in this field at European
To find out more:
'Sol Gel' method
(FR), October 2002. About 30 representatives from ten
research partners working on the European Solsulet project
(Novel Sol Gel technology for long-length superconducting
coated tapes) were the guests of the Laboratoire des
Matériaux et du Génie Physique, one of
the jewels in the crown of Grenoble's Institut National
Over the two-day gathering, the researchers
took stock of the progress made in the year since they
had launched their joint project. Coming from Spain,
Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and, of course, France,
the participants were pleased at the opportunity to
discuss their work and initial results, as well as to
refine their strategy for the months ahead. All in all,
the meeting was a fine example of what the European
Superconductivity Area represents, with a mix of nationalities,
generations, academic excellence and industrial know-how.
Solsulet has an innovative ambition:
to develop a radically new method of depositing YBCO
HTS compounds on long thin tapes, representing a complete
departure from the traditional vaporisation or heat
chamber processes. They aim to achieve this by using
'This process is already well-known
for its applications in the fields of glassmaking and
optics to create anti-reflection films on windows or
optical lenses,' explains Xavier Obradors, the project’s
coordinator and an experienced researcher in the field
of superconductivity at the Instituto de Ciència
de Materials in Barcelona. 'But this depositing method
has been tried very little, if at all, in obtaining
The principle is to pass the YBCO
compounds through a transitional liquid and colloidal
phase – when they are present in aerosol form
(the 'Sol' phase) – to arrive at a solid 'gel'
state forming a superconducting film on the support.
'We currently have all the conditions,
and, in particular, the equipment needed for this approach,'
continues Obradors. He adds that early tests of the
new method are under way but the challenge of enhancing
its superconductive performance will continue until
the project winds down in two year’s time.
in the wings
Relaunched since the
discovery of the High Temperature Superconductors (HTSs)
in the late eighties, research into superconducting
materials could well hold more surprises in store and
totally overturn some accepted ideas. Scientific articles
are constantly reporting on new atypical lines of inquiry,
many of them linked to the accelerated development of
Among the most recent are studies
carried out on the superconductive capacities of the
fullerene and nanotube families, constructed on the
basis of carbon atoms, or of the heavy fermions (belonging
to the actinide or associated groups). More recently,
there was the announcement in March 2001 of the remarkable
performance obtained from magnesium boride alloys.
all have the failing of only being superconductive at
low temperatures (at any rate lower than liquid nitrogen).
But they do offer potential new ways forward –
in particular in terms of development and economic viability
– to rival the present approaches to HTS.