Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have found a way to make high-temperature superconducting power cables that are a tenth the diameter of existing superconducting cables but can carry just as much current. The thin, flexible cables could open up new applications in electrical power transmission and could lead to powerful new magnets.
The cables could provide a lightweight, compact replacement for copper power cables, says NIST researcher Danko van der Laan, who led the work. Superconducting magnets made with the cables would generate much higher magnetic fields than are possible today. Such high fields would be useful for high-energy physics and for proton therapies used in cancer treatment.
Superconductors conduct high electric currents without heating up or losing power when they are cooled. The superconducting magnets found in medical imaging devices and particle accelerators typically use niobium alloys that turn superconducting below 10 K (-263 °C). But certain compounds made of rare earth elements, barium, copper, and oxygen also become superconducting at higher temperatures of over 70 K (-203 °C), at which point they can be cooled using liquid nitrogen or helium gas.
High-temperature superconducting cables have been touted as a promising alternative to copper cables for electric power transmission in urban settings and compact spaces. That’s because just one superconducting cable could replace more than10 copper cables, cutting weight by over 95 percent and eliminating heating loss.
Cryogenic superconducting power cables are typically made using superconducting “tapes” wound around solid or hollow metal cores. The tapes are thin strips of metal coated with a micrometer-thick layer of superconductor and films of ceramic insulators. Superconducting cables have recently been used in small power-grid demonstrations. A bismuth-based cable was installed at a utility substation in Columbus, Ohio, in 2006, for instance. It has a diameter of seven centimeters and can carry 3,000 amperes.
In comparison, van der Laan has made a cable 7.5 millimeters wide that can carry 2,800 amperes. Another is 6.5 millimeters in diameter and can carry 1,200 amperes. The cables can be bent around a cable with a diameter of less than a quarter of a meter.
Van der Laan starts with a core made of multiple copper strands sheathed in nylon insulation. Then he winds superconducting tapes made of gadolinium barium cuprate in alternating directions around the core. His experimental results were recently published online in the journal Superconductor Science and Technology.