Magazine article Insight on the News

Researchers Find New Uses for Flexible Superconductors

Magazine article Insight on the News

Researchers Find New Uses for Flexible Superconductors

Article excerpt

Step by step, researchers are mastering the remarkable ceramic materials that conduct electricity with no resistance -- ushering in a new era in the energy and electronics industries.

The discovery of high critical-temperature superconductors in the mid-1980s led to predictions of levitating trains, speedy computers and advanced medical equipment. Time has passed, and so far HTc superconductors have resisted efforts at commercialization.

That may be about to change. The first commercial HTc superconductors -- used to develop magnetic sensors for medical imaging and laboratory measurements -- are on the market. Compact, highly efficient superconducting electronic filters -- key components in central switching points for cellular communication -- promise dramatically improved wireless communication. A 1,000-horsepower superconducting motor is scheduled to debut in 1998, and a 10,000-horsepower model is on the drawing boards.

"It took many years for the transistor [invented in 1948] to reach widespread applications [in integrated circuits in 1961]"' says Joseph Madden, applications engineering manager for California-based Superconductor Technologies. Like the semiconductors used for making transistors, superconductors have properties markedly different from those found in everyday insulators and conductors.

"A superconductor is a material that does two things," explains Paul Grant, executive scientist at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. "It carries electricity perfectly... It is also a perfect shield against magnetism," which allows one superconductor to float above another.

How can something have no electrical resistance? "Although theoreticians have since diligently pursued a theory to explain HTc superconductors, so far no one theory is the clear winner," notes Balu Balachandran, director of the High Temperature Superconductivity Program at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Despite the lack of theoretical understanding, however, research scientists, both academic and industrial, have been engaged in intense experimentation with HTc superconductor materials. One of the first problems they encountered: Superconductors, made of brittle ceramics, are ill-suited to form the flexible wires required for most electronic applications.

"If you take ceramic dinner plates and try to draw them into wire, that's very, very challenging processing," says Wei-Kan Chu, deputy director of research for the Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston. After attempts to machine the new ceramics had proven unsuccessful, two alternate processing approaches were adopted. …

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