The 100-Year Wait

The 100-year wait is over

How AML has set the stage for the wide-scale commercialization of superconductivity and next-generation magnet technologies

Superconductivity — the promise, and the obstacles

Superconductivity was discovered about 100 years ago, but the story actually starts nearly 200 years ago, marked by the introduction of electrical power itself in the 1820s and 1830s — thanks to the invention of the electromagnet and the electric generator.

For the better part of 180 years, this electromagnet technology has remained largely unchanged.  Its common characteristics include:

  • Three types of magnet coils: solenoid, racetrack and saddle
  • Limitations of these coil configurations — in field shape, field quality, scalability and use of conductor materials
  • The need for magnet-specific tooling for manufacturing
conventional-coil-configs-7

Unchanged for nearly two centuries: conventional coil configurations—solenoid, racetrack and saddle.

 

Nikola Tesla's induction motor, circa 1883

Nikola Tesla’s induction motor, circa 1883

Then, in 1911, superconductivity was discovered by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes.  He observed that an electrical conductor exhibited no electrical resistance and zero related energy loss when cooled to a very low temperature. It was an event that altered our understanding of electricity.

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (1853-1926)

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (1853-1926) 

Even Kamerlingh Onnes could not have imaged the potential impact of “zero resistance” on the future of energy, industry, transportation, medical procedures and the environment.

The promise

The discovery promised vast improvements in the generation, distribution and use of electrical power.  For that reason, industries and governments have long pursued superconductivity as a potentially transformational force that could be leveraged for broad economic and social impact.

Superconductivity allows much higher power, enabling the flow of thousands of amps of electrical current in a very small conductor, not impeded by resistance, and with no energy losses. The advantages of superconductor-based systems are manifested in a combination of lower cost, lighter and smaller systems, and higher efficiency, reliability and performance.

Engineers imagine transmitting electrical power over hundreds of miles without energy loss, and creating vastly improved electrical grid components.  They foresee super-efficient motors to replace conventional large industrial motors that currently consume a full third of electrical energy in the U.S.  The vision even extends to transportation, where superconducting propulsion motors could usher in an age of all-electric ships and planes, because they can deliver high power output with a fraction of the size and weight of conventional rotating machines.

Today’s energy and environmental landscape faces complex challenges. Population growth, urbanization and industrialization are driving higher demand for energy and water, and aging infrastructure is straining under that demand.

“Humanity uses practically unthinkable amounts of energy to drive our modern way of life. Overall, global power usage has been predicted to almost double from 16.5 to 30 Terawatts in the next four decades.” 1

There is universal agreement between the United Nations and governments from the richest to the poorest nations that humanity faces unprecedented global challenges relating to sustainable energy, clean water, low-emission transportation, coping with climate change and natural disasters, and reclaiming use of land.

“Clearly, superconductivity is an ultimate energy-saving technology, and its practical implementation will contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions, improved water purification, reduction of waste and timely preparedness for natural disasters or significant events.” 2

But to date, the promise has been elusive.  With a few exceptions (such as MRI systems), practical commercial successes have been largely limited to narrow research and scientific applications.

The benefits and obstacles are well understood.  Leading authorities such as the U.S. Department of Energy, EPRI-Electric Power Research Institute, and major companies like GE, ABB and Siemens are all in agreement:  It has never been a question of ifbut when– superconductivity will reach the thresholds of cost and reliability for mainstream use.

The obstacles

Creating commercially viable superconducting systems is dependent on the availability of improved magnet technology, commercially ready conductor materials, cryogenics, and deep experience in systems design and integration. The recurring challenges of cost, reliability and performance have plagued all of these four interrelated areas.

1.  Obsolete magnet technology

Conventional magnet technologies do not address the key cost and reliability challenges that exist in superconducting systems.

  • While superconductors exhibit extremely desirable characteristics such as high power densities, which yield stronger magnetic fields, magnetic forces and torque, their mechanical and operational requirements necessitate very expensive product designs and cumbersome manufacturing in order to assure system stability.
  • Furthermore, superconductor materials are much less robust than conventional copper conductors.  This makes it very difficult to maintain their stability when subjected to the forces inherent in a superconducting system—and failure to maintain conductor stability is a show stopper.

2. Limitations of conductor materials

Over the past 100 years, there has been an on-going quest for materials that become superconducting when cryogenically cooled. Key cost drivers are the raw materials, manufacturing processes and the temperature at which the conductor becomes superconducting.  Researchers and manufacturers have long yearned for a commercially feasible conductor that addresses all three cost drivers.

Here is the progress:

  • Low temperature superconductors (LTS) called Niobium-titanium (NbTi) are relatively inexpensive and commercially available; but, while they are the mainstay for MRI systems, they are unsuitable for most other applications due to the high operational costs of low-temperature cryogenic systems.
  • In 1987, a high-temperature superconductor (HTS) called YBCO was discovered.  It can operate at a much higher temperature, thus enabling more affordable cryogenics.  While YBCO can lead to reduced cooling costs, the materials and processes used to produce YBCO remain too expensive for magnet-based commercial applications.

Finally,

  • In 2001, a new and very promising superconductor called Magnesium Diboride (MgB2) was discovered.  Because it is comprised of very cheap materials–magnesium and boron (dirt)–and suited to relatively traditional wire manufacturing processes, the cost of MgB2 is only 5% that of YBCO— and even less expensive than copper for high-power applications.

3.  Cooling requirements

Superconductors must be cooled to cryogenic temperatures using reliable and cost-effective refrigeration systems.  In addition to cost and reliability, the physical size of cooling systems has been an inhibitor for many applications. As with the progression of superconductors, the price and performance of cooling systems has advanced in recent years, significantly improving commercial viability.

4.  Systems design & integration

Very few companies worldwide have the knowhow and experience in applied use of superconductivity. Most efforts have been limited to government research laboratories and large companies involved in the design and manufacturing of medical MRI systems. The superconductivity industry and the pursuit for commercial applications has been almost exclusively driven by those companies in the business of developing and manufacturing conductors.

Overall, the cost, reliability and performance issues that characterize these obstacles are becoming less daunting.   This is due, in part, to the maturation of the superconducting industry; but the most dramatic factor is AML’s two-decade effort and investment focused on enabling commercially viable superconducting products and solutions.

Why Now?

AML’s answers to the challenges of materials, cooling and magnetics, and the creation of viable solution platforms, are important factors in this revolution, but there’s more at play.   The movement toward widespread commercial adoption of superconductor-based applications is accelerating toward reality, thanks, in large part, to a convergence of market, socio-economic and geopolitical forces:

  • The political and moral demand to improve living conditions—with affordable energy, cleaner water and better medical treatments–for those at the “base of the pyramid”.
  • The need for nations, companies and industries to reduce the cost of energy to stay competitive in a global economy.
  • The growing economic and environmental call for renewable energy, such as wind power.
  • The ever-escalating demands to reduce the energy costs and improve the environment for aircraft, ships, rail, and other modes of transportation.
  • The urgent need (both economic and political) for alternatives to critically scarce rare earth materials.

Perhaps most important is the momentum that comes from a growing expectation–among analysts, engineers, business executives and other visionaries of all stripes.  There is a growing belief that the time is right for superconductivity to emerge as the next great transformational technology—with far-reaching impact.

Much like the invention of the transistor, which enabled the information age, superconductivity will change the world in many large markets such as energy, electronics, communications, transportation and defense by significantly increasing energy efficiency and decreasing the cost of energy production.

Why AML?

Industrial Revolutions, the space age and the information age have all brought about revolutionary societal advances as a result of fundamental discoveries. The superconductivity revolution presents an unprecedented opportunity for those companies who can harness its benefits.  Twenty years of continuous innovation puts AML in sync with the macro forces noted above, and has made us one of a very few companies in the world with the experience and proven capability in superconductivity to enable this opportunity.

The AML Perfect-FieldTM Application Development Process: the game changer

AML has cleared the roadblocks to put the full commercial promise of superconductivity within reach for the first time in a hundred years.  We started by rewriting the standards for magnetic design.  We then combined our patented coil technologies, our ability to apply advanced conductor materials and cooling technologies, our experience, and a deep portfolio of supporting technologies and systems into a single, end-to-end approach we call the Perfect-FieldTM Application Development Process.

This first-ever comprehensive development method and our revolutionary magnet configurations offer visionary organizations an accelerated path to market for superconducting and advanced magnet-based applications.

AML can set the pace for broad commercial application development, because the Perfect-Field process yields revolutionary—but proven–magnet technologies and “Product Platforms” ranging from superconducting rotating machines to specific-use high-performance magnets.  These platforms can enable the rapid creation of advanced applications in energy generation, renewable and industrial energy use, water treatment and other environmental solutions, and exciting new medical treatments and procedures.

Validation

AML’s technology and integrated end-to-end process for developing superconducting and advanced magnetic solutions have yielded breakthroughs on multiple fronts, with other major demonstration projects on the horizon.

AML’s DOE-approved design for a superconducting wind turbine generatorOur solution was selected by the Department of Energy as a standard for offshore wind turbine drivetrains over designs from energy giants GE, Eaton and Clipper Windpower.  Our design was judged more cost-effective compared to other alternatives–due to lower weight and size, higher efficiency and the elimination of high-cost rare earth materials.  Having been vetted and approved by DOE and our strategic development partners, this solution is ready for immediate licensing for offshore wind power, but can also be readily adapted as a rotating-machine solution appropriate for dozens of other applications, as well.

The “Impact Innovation Alliance large-scale demonstration projects.  As a principal in this major joint venture with the Chilean-based Advanced Innovation Center, sustainability-focused foundation Avina and the government of Chile, AML is leading the development of these projects beginning in 2014.  Conducted on a global stage, the demonstrations are focused on majorhigh-profile, large-scale projects, such as magnetic separation for wastewater, will prove technical performance and commercial viability on an international stage and will help propagate new solutions for sustainable energy, purer water and cleaner, more efficient industries.

Strategic contributions to major scientific research and industry projects since 1995.  Through contracts and grants, AML has developed superconducting magnets or applications for a wide variety of organizations – world-class collaboration partners.

 

  1. 2011 Equinox Summit: Energy 2030
  2. Superconductivity and the Environment: A Roadmap,” iOP Publishing Ltd, 2013