SuperPower Makes Record Superconducting Wires

SuperPower, which is developing High Temperature Superconducting (HTS) wires and HTS devices for the electric power industry, has made extraordinary progress in the last few months on its high power-density, ultra energy-efficient wires. The company surpassed its previous record for a long length second generation (2G) HTS wire by 100m, producing a 427 meter (1,400 feet) long piece of wire. The current carrying capacity (Ic) of the wire is 191 amps per centimeter, meaning that two wires just 1cm wide by about 0.05 mm thick (the wires are tape-shaped) can carry as much current as a copper cable thicker than a man’s thumb.

The new long length achievement is exciting news for the many industries watching the HTS industry, including CleanTech, and illustrates SuperPower’s progress in 2G wire manufacture, with its first 1m production run in 2002 to its 427m wire today.

This progress is noteworthy for a few reasons. These high power densities are hoped to enable a next generation of ultra efficient power distribution cables, motors, generators, and a host of other devices that would make the electrical grids more efficient and effective. Until now, the question for superconducting wires, which carry electricity with zero or very little losses and can transmit hundreds of times the amount of electrical current as conventional copper wires, has not been whether or not they are useful, but whether than can ever be made at all. At 427 meters, SuperPower has shown that HTS wires can be produced in relatively long lengths, and it is not absurd to envision that the company will soon be manufacturing 1000 meter lengths.

The other major question for HTS has been whether wires can be produced to the high standards of performance, reliability, and repeatability necessary for commercialization. Making a wire once is an important technical achievement, but it essentially irrelevant from the standpoint of commercialization, where massive economies of scale are required to bring costs into alignment with what potential customers might be willing to pay. SuperPower has demonstrated progress in the area of repeatability as well. SuperPower will soon make delivery of 10,000m of 2G to Sumitomo for use in the Phase II of a major HTS cable demonstration project in Albany, NY. Venkat Selvamanickam, Program Manager, Materials Technology at SuperPower, said, “We can now routinely make 4mm wide 2G conductors with an Ic of 100A in lengths over 270m.”

In addition to length, performance and manufacturability improvements, SuperPower’s achievement has scored a strategic victory of sorts. Within the superconductor industry there are two major camps: those developing first generation (1G) wire and those developing 2G wire. The advantage of 1G is that it has proven to be relatively easy to manufacture, and can now be purchased in virtually any quantity needed from a number of suppliers in the U.S., Europe and Japan, including American Superconductor, Trithor, European High Temperature Superconductors, and Sumitomo Electric Industries.

2G, a far less mature technology, hopes to compete with 1G. Many believe 2G may ultimately offer advantages over 1G such as lower cost, higher currents (SuperPower has also produced a 7cm long conductor with an impressively high Ic of 721A/cm), optimized performance for applications such as motors, magnets, and fault current limiters. Selvamanickam believes 2G has at last equaled or surpassed 1G: “2G conductor is now available in long lengths, with Ic in the realm of 1G.”

At the Applied Superconductivity Conference in Seattle last summer, the mood among HTS wires developers seemed to be more upbeat than in past years. Nonetheless, revolutionizing electric power use with HTS wires will still take time, money, and luck. SuperPower and its competitors must continue to fund development of a technology that has taken years, perhaps ultimately even decades, longer to develop than originally anticipated.

Underscoring these challenges is the fate of SuperPower as a company. SuperPower’s parent company, Intermagnetics General, has been trying to find a way to shed SuperPower for some time now. Now, Philips Medical Systems has acquired Intermagnetics, further obscuring SuperPower’s future. On announcing the plans for the now-completed acquisition, Intermagnetics President & CEO, Glenn H. Epstein, told me that he intended to oversee personally the divestiture of SuperPower. With SuperPower enjoying a leadership role in HTS worldwide, let us hope Epstein is able to translate some of this excitement into a bright future for SuperPower.

Mark Bitterman, Executive Editor, Superconductor Week

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