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New record brings superconductors closer to the mainstream


July 16, 2014

A new high-temperature superconductor can trap a record magnetic field of 17.6 Tesla, in a...

A new high-temperature superconductor can trap a record magnetic field of 17.6 Tesla, in an advance that could bring us closer to cheaper maglev and vacuum trains, better electric grids, and flywheel energy storage (Image: University of Cambridge)

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Researchers at the University of Cambridge have created a new high-temperature superconductor capable of trapping a magnetic field of 17.6 Tesla, improving on a record set over a decade ago. The advance is yet another step toward making superconductors viable for building effective large-scale smart electricity grids, maglev trains and flywheel energy storage.

First discovered in 1911, superconductors are a class of materials including mercury and lead which, when cooled down to temperatures near absolute zero (–273 °C), can conduct electricity with zero resistance. Today, these materials are used to build the powerful electromagnets that go inside MRI machines, maglev trains and magnetic confinement nuclear reactors (tokamaks). In the future, they could be used to increase the efficiency of the power grid by carrying large amounts of electricity with very little loss.

In the late 1980s, scientists discovered a new class of materials that displayed superconductive properties at temperatures of up to 130 K – well above absolute zero. These so-called high temperature superconductors (HTS) are very attractive for real-world applications because they can be cooled with liquid nitrogen rather than liquid helium, making them much easier and cheaper to operate.

Now, a group of researchers at Cambridge University has managed to create a HTS that can trap a magnetic field of 17.6 Tesla, breaking a record that had been standing for over ten years. Trapping a large magnetic field is essential to conducting electricity effectively, and so this feat, despite improving on the previous record only by a mere 0.4 Tesla, is still an important step toward making cheap and effective superconductors within our reach.

"The fact that this record has stood for so long shows just how demanding this field really is,” said Professor David Cardwell of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. “There are real potential gains to be had with even small increases in field."

The high-temperature superconductor can be cooled with liquid nitrogen rather than liquid ...

The high-temperature superconductor can be cooled with liquid nitrogen rather than liquid helium (Image: University of Cambridge)

To achieve this record performance, a team of scientists led by Prof. David Cardwell used a golf ball-sized sample of a high-temperature superconductor called gadolinium barium copper oxide (GdBCO).

Cuprates, or copper-based HTSs like GdBCO, are already being used in the real world for specialized applications. For instance, the Large Hadron Collider, the world's highest-energy particle accelerator, uses tens of kilometers of superconducting copper-based electrical cable. However, these materials can be very brittle, and the forces generated by a strong magnetic field can cause them to explode.

Cardwell and colleagues surmounted this obstacle by reinforcing the GdBCO with a 3 mm thick layer of stainless steel and tweaking its microstructure to increase its current carrying and thermal performance. The resulting sample harnesses the equivalent of three tonnes of force in a material that is normally as brittle as fine china.

These results are yet another step toward the widespread commercial application of high-temperature superconductors, which the researchers say could come within the next five years.

"Applications that are relevant to this performance include maglev and flywheel energy storage, using bulk superconductors to levitate a rotating mass without the need for a mechanical bearing," Prof. Cardwell told Gizmag.

The results appear in the open-access paper Superconductor Science and Technology.

Source: University of Cambridge

About the Author
Dario Borghino Dario studied software engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. When he isn't writing for Gizmag he is usually traveling the world on a whim, working on an AI-guided automated trading system, or chasing his dream to become the next European thumbwrestling champion.   All articles by Dario Borghino

The game changer, that brings it all together.

16th July, 2014 @ 09:38 pm PDT

I still look forward to the combination of elements that results in room temp (60-80 F) super conductors-when this is found, the WHOLE WORLD will change! I still remember the OMNI magazine articles about it! electricity will be ALMOST free!!!!

Dave Ussery
17th July, 2014 @ 07:57 am PDT

It would be nice if some data is given as to define just what a Tesla is in relationship to our everyday lived in world. The same for the mishmosh of temp. measurements thrown together, like Kelvin, which supersedes Centigrade... and at least give us the German created Fahrenheit which corresponds to Humans rather nicely. Room temp. 60 to 80ºs F Super Conductors would indeed change the world as we know it.

I recall the OMNI articles from over 20 years ago, Dave Ussery. Likely have a few stashed away. Exciting stuff at the time.

17th July, 2014 @ 08:16 am PDT

I suppose what they mean is that bearingless flywheels in a vacuum could theoretically spin forever (infinitesimally small losses) until such time as power is required - whereupon one force acting on another would cause the stored power of/in the flywheel (speed of rotation) to diminish at a rate subject to amt of energy drawn VS speed and/or mass.

In real terms we may not need to eliminate losses entirely as the cost/benefit ratio will be affected by items like when the next power cycle will occur (either to drawn power or to re-input).

17th July, 2014 @ 01:33 pm PDT

Kelvin is the same scale as "Centigrade," or Celsius, except that 0°K = absolute zero (-273°C, -459°F ), so water freezes below 273° K.

0° F= dress very warm or you're dead, 50° F wear a jacket, 100° F= too hot for clothing;

0° C= wear a coat, 50° C= you're dead, 100° C= you're cooked;

0° K= you're dead, 50° K you're dead, 100° K you're still dead.

17th July, 2014 @ 08:23 pm PDT

@ Dave Ussery

Just getting superconductors that could be cooled using propane or C02 as the refrigerant would make a huge difference.

25th July, 2014 @ 01:07 am PDT

when the supercondectuors can cut magnetic field then we can make a self genarating moter

Deva Kiran
3rd August, 2014 @ 06:03 pm PDT
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