Text: Svein Tønseth
The duo of Magne Runde and Niklas Magnusson at SINTEF Energy Research are joint recipients of a recently established German-Norwegian industry prize.
They received this honour in acknowledgement of their application of superconductors – materials that carry electricity entirely without resistance – in industrial processes that are currently saving energy in the copper and aluminium industries.
Norwegian Trade and Industry Minister Trond Giske applauds Magne Runde (left), from SINTEF Energy Research, and his collaborator Dr. Carsten Bührer, Managing Director of the German company Zenergy Power. Photo: Anne Cecilie Lund, NHD
The industry prize has been established by the Norwegian-German Chamber of Commerce. Trond Giske, the Norwegian Minister for Trade and Industry, presented the award.
The prize was awarded to the German company Zenergy Power Gmbh. The company has made use of a patent from the two SINTEF research scientists as the basis for the manufacture of massively energy-saving induction furnaces for production processes in the metallurgical industry.
“A good example of a successful working partnership involving Norwegian know-how and German entrepreneurship”, says the jury in its citation. The story of this patented discovery has its beginnings in the story of a once prophesied energy revolution – that never happened.
The 1972 Nobel Prize - birth of a dream
Superconductivity is a physical phenomenon that allows certain materials such as metals, alloys and ceramic materials to carry an electrical current entirely without resistance.
The process occurs at low temperatures. For a considerable time, physicists believed that temperatures close to absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius) were necessary in order to permit current to flow without any loss of energy. The researchers who explained why this appeared to be the case won the Nobel Prize in 1972.
But many people continued to dream about materials that might act as superconductors at temperatures that were more easily achievable.
Another Nobel Prize - 1987
The breakthrough came in 1986 when the Swiss Karl Müller and the German Georg Bednorz at the IBM Research Division in Zurich discovered materials in which they succeeded in generating superconductivity at 35 degrees Kelvin (-238 degrees Celsius). And in 1987 they were awarded their own Nobel Prize.
By this time, the race among researchers had succeeded in bringing the magic temperature threshold to over 90 degrees Kelvin (-183 degrees Celsius).
A wave of optimism
The materials were given the name “high temperature superconductors”. The leap from close to -273 degrees Celsius made it now less energy-demanding to cool superconductors. Physicists the world over forecasted that the new discovery would kick-start an energy revolution.
We were going to see power transmission without energy loss, and trains that would glide along tracks ─ held in place by strong magnetic fields. Among other things.
But no practical applications ever emerged. Right up until the time many years later when a much more prosaic idea began to germinate between the ears of two researchers in Trondheim.
Thanks to the technology that the SINTEF researchers Magne Runde and Niklas Magnusson have now developed, high temperature superconductors are used today in a handful of manufacturing facilities in the copper and aluminium industry on the Continent - all based on a superconducting material cooled to about -200 degrees.
SINTEF has developed a new generation of induction furnaces around this concept. The furnaces heat up the aluminium billets before they are extruded as profiles and in turn become transformed into items well-known to us all – everything from light fixtures to window frames.
Slashing electricity bills
To date the German manufacturer has sold five of the recently developed furnaces to the metallurgy industry on the Continent.
The superconductors save huge amounts of electricity in the operation of these furnaces. Enough to slash electricity bills by NOK 1 million a year at one particular aluminium profile manufacturer!
A new approach
“This may not sound like a huge sum. But margins at the extrusion factories are being squeezed. So savings of a million kroner a year really make a difference. But probably even more important is that this demonstrates that superconductor technology really has something to offer the industry – a new way of thinking about the design and application of electrical power engineering components”, say Magne Runde and Niklas Magnusson.
A world first
For some time superconductors have been used for applications such as medical MR devices and in particle accelerators, such as the well-known CERN laboratory in Geneva.
But Magne Runde explains that even the most modern among these installations employ electrical conductors that are cooled right down to temperatures as low as -269 degrees Celsius or lower. In these applications, the magnetic field is so powerful that high temperature superconductors are not so suitable.
“Our system won’t save the world. But at the same time we are the first to have developed a truly practical application for high temperature superconductors. And we think it quite amusing when people come up to us and ask <<How big is your group?>>. The answer is that we are only two ─ and we only work part-time on the superconductors”, say Magne Runde and Niklas Magnusson, who are both Senior Research Scientists at SINTEF Energy Research.