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image European Research News Centre > Pure Science > Superconductivity: the stakes
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image image image Date published : 24/02/03
  image Superconductivity: the stakes
RTD info 36

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)

Year 1997 2000 2003 2010
Scientific devices destined for use in research 355 415 550 840
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) 1400 1900 2100 2750
Sub-total 1755 2315 2650 3590
New electrotechnical applications 35 25 55 980
New electronics applications 20 30 75 680
Sub-total 55 55 130 1660
Estimate of total worldwide market 1810 2370 2780 5250
Market shares for LTS(1) 1805 2355 2730 3650
Market shares for HTS(1) 5 15 50 1600

This table was compiled in December 2001 by the Consortium of European Companies Determined to Use Superconductivity (CONECTUS - PDF)
(1) Low and High Temperature Superconductors


Magnet Valley, Oxfordshire

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 skilled staff.

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 level.

(1) Oxford Instruments is active in this field principally via its partnership with Siemens.

To find out more:

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The 'Sol Gel' method

Participant actif du projet Solsulet, le Laboratoire des Matériaux et du Génie Physique de Grenoble, est, depuis plusieurs années, un centre important impliqué dans les recherches européennes sur la supraconductivité HTS.Grenoble (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 Polytechnique.

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 Sol-Gel technology.

'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 superconducting tapes.'

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.


Xavier Obradors,
University of Barcelona
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Waiting 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 nanotechnologies.

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.

These ‘outsiders’ 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.

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This Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer, developed by the US firm Varian, was installed at the Pacific North West National Laboratory (USA) in March 2002. It is fitted with the very latest device from Oxford Instruments, a Wide-Bore 900 MHz/ 21.14 Tesla super-diamond, which beats all records of magnetic power achieved in a commercial application.

This Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer, developed by the US firm Varian, was installed at the Pacific North West National Laboratory (USA) in March 2002. It is fitted with the very latest device from Oxford Instruments, a Wide-Bore 900 MHz/ 21.14 Tesla super-diamond, which beats all records of magnetic power achieved in a commercial application.


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