|Senior scientists Magne Runde (left) and Niklas Magnussen were handed a prestigious award in Brussels on Wednesday for their application of high-temperature superconductors. In this photo, they use their equipment to measure AC losses in superconductors. Photo: Thor Nielsen.|
The discovery of high-temperature superconductors in 1986 resulted in a Nobel Prize for physics the following year – not to mention predictions of a revolution in energy transmission. We were going to enjoy lossless power transmission, and trains that hovered over their rails thanks to powerful magnetic fields, among many other benefits.
SINTEF scientist Magne Runde learned that the traditional induction kilns used to heat aluminium in order to make it malleable, have energy losses of about 50 percent! That was what got him to start the snowball rolling. Photo: Thor Nielsen
Niklas Magnusson joined the SINTEF team as a post-doctoral research fellow in 2001. According to his colleague Magne Runde, Magnusson's arrival got the ball rolling even faster. Photo: Thor Nielsen
However, we have had to wait for a quarter of a century for an application that has actually led to something practical. The barrier has been broken by the current award-winners Magne Runde and Niklas Magnusson of SINTEF Energy Research.
Saving power in the aluminium and copper industries
Superconducting materials carry electric current without resistance. However, they need to be cooled to extremely low temperatures to acquire this property.
High-temperature superconductors do not need to be cooled to such low temperatures. Utilising these materials enabled Runde and Magnusson to develop manufacturing processes that save energy in the copper and aluminium industries.
This has now brought the two scientists a prestigious European innovation award, which was handed over in Brussels on Wednesday, December 7, by Robert-Jan Smits, the Dutch head of the administration responsible for the European Commission's research activities.
Awards ceremony in Brussels
The Innovation Award was set up by EARTO, the European organisation for research institutions, whose 350 members carry out contract research and technology transfer for industry, trade associations and the public sector.
Candidates from six of EARTO’s member institutions were nominated for a place in the final selection.
The revolution that did not materialize
The patented invention that won the SINTEF scientists the prize emerges from the story of a predicted energy revolution – a revolution that did not take place.
Superconductivity is a physical phenomenon that enables certain materials (metals, alloys and ceramic materials) to conduct electricity without resistance.
The effect appears at extremely low temperatures. Physicists long believed that temperatures close to absolute zero - 273 degrees Celsius below zero were essential for an electric current to move without energy loss. The scientists who explained why this seemed to be so received the Nobel Prize in 1972.
But many continued to dream of materials with which they could achieve superconductivity at more practical temperatures.
Nobel Prize - for the second time
The breakthrough came in 1986 when the Swiss scientist Karl Müller and his German colleague Georg Bednorz at IBM’s Research Division in Zurich, found materials in which they managed to elicit superconductivity at 35 Kelvin; minus 238 degrees Celsius. In 1987 they won a Nobel Prize.
By this time, the research race had already raised the magic temperature threshold to above 77 Kelvin - minus 196 degrees Celsius, the boiling point of nitrogen.
Wave of optimism
The materials were given the name “high-temperature superconductors”. The jump from close to 273 degrees below zero meant that less energy was needed to cool superconductors. Physicists all over the world predicted that the new discovery would be the start of an energy revolution that, among other things, would provide lossless power transmission and maglev (magnetic levitation) trains.
But the practical applications did not materialise, until a far more prosaic idea began to form in the heads of two Trondheim scientists several years later.
Into the metallurgical industry
Thanks to technology developed by SINTEF scientists Magne Runde and Niklas Magnusson, high-temperature superconductors are now in use at a handful of plants in the copper and aluminium smelting industries on the Continent.
The starting point is a superconducting material that is cooled to about 200 degrees below zero.
This was the basis for SINTEF’s development of a new generation of induction kilns that heat aluminium and copper billets before these are extruded into profiles and turned into the products that we see all around us – everything, in fact from lighting fixtures to window frames.
In 2007, the German company group Zenergy Power GmbH was licensed the rights to exploit the SINTEF patent. The German manufacturer, in collaboration with the Bültmann company, has already sold five of the newly developed kilns to the continental metallurgical industry.
The first kiln has been in use since 2008 and has already heated up 15 000 tons of aluminium.
Cuts electricity bills
In the induction kilns developed by SINTEF, the superconductors save enormous amounts of electricity, enough to cut the electricity bill of a single manufacturer of aluminium extrusions by a million dollars a year!
“This may not sound like a huge amount. But margins are tight in such extrusion plants, which means that savings of a million dollars a year also help a bit. But even more important is the fact that this demonstrates that superconductor technology does have something to offer industry - a new way of thinking about the design and use of electric power components,” say Runde and Magnusson.
Traditional superconductors have long been used in magnetic resonance (MR) instruments in medicine and in particle accelerators, such as at the famous CERN laboratory in Geneva.
But Magne Runde explains that even the most modern of these installations use conductors that have to be cooled down to minus 269 oC or even lower. In these applications the magnetic field is so strong that high-temperature superconductors are not so suitable.
“We are not going to save the world with our solution. All the same, we are the first to have developed an application for high-temperature superconductors that has actuallybeen adopted by industry. We also think it is quite amusing when people come and ask, "How big is your group?" The answer is that there are only two of us, and that we only work part-time on superconductors,” say Magne Runde and Niklas Magnusson, two senior scientists at SINTEF Energy.
By Svein Tønseth