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Luvata celebrates superconductivity’s 100th birthday

(8 September 2011).   If superconductors could walk among us, they might well affect long, pointy hats and carry crystal balls while waving magic wands. After all, superconductors would seem nothing short of wizardry to the world before their surprising discovery one century ago in Holland.

Watch the fabric of the universe ignite: Shazam, atom smashers!
See inside the brain and body: Presto, MRI imaging!
Float upon the air like birds: Abracadabra, levitating trains!

Since 1911, study into these remarkable conductors of energy has garnered seven Nobel prizes and counting while unlocking the smallest and most powerful secrets of the universe. Superconductors redefined medical diagnosis and treatment through the introduction in the 1980s of clinical Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which remains the chief commercial application. But they also promise to revolutionize the fields of energy, computing and transportation in a symphony of fantastical innovation.  

As the leading supplier of superconducting wire and cable to MRI manufacturers – and as a major player in superconductor- enabled atom smashers – Luvata stands at the forefront of this profoundly influential technology. The millions owing their continued health to an MRI machine’s diagnosis can attest to this technology’s practical importance. And the world’s leading physicists who have witnessed atomic collisions at sites like the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the U.S. and CERN in Switzerland will testify to superconductivity’s power.

The commercial peak has not been glimpsed as demand for superconductors is going gangbusters. Yearly MRI machine orders are expected to jump from 3,000 to 4,000 units by 2014 as the imaging devices become more powerful and their application moves into the interventional side of medicine as well as the diagnostic.

Dr. Hem Kanithi, Vice-President of Technology at Luvata Waterbury, said that Luvata is distinguished from its competitors by supplying superconductors to all four of the major MRI coil manufacturers: Phillips, Siemens, GE and Mitsubishi.  Meeting that demand is challenging, but Luvata will continue fueling the superconductor boom.

Luvata’s two other manufacturing sites are located in Pori, Finland and Zhongshan, China. Pori started working with superconductors three decades ago while Luvata’s youngest sister site turns five in 2011. 

Luvata alone maintains a presence in all the major markets of Asia, Europe and the Americas. Our omnipresence has opened up exceptional opportunities to build strategic partnerships with the industry’s key players, while laying the tracks for sustainable growth.

“Last year we supplied millions of meters of MRI wire, more than the radius of earth. This year we target the earth’s diameter,” said Jukka Somerkoski, Mill Manager of Zhongshan, China. With the potentially massive Chinese MRI market just coming online, Somerkoski said that Luvata recently announced expansion plans in China to double sales of MRI superconducting wire over the next five years.

Still, the world soon promises to be even further braided with superconductors as they extend beyond their primary commercial use in MRI imaging.

Luvata is proud to be synonymous with the superconducting age. Already the industry leader in superconductor wire and cable for MRI machines, Luvata is also intertwined with various global interests’ cutting edge technological applications. Luvata’s materials and technology will help power the superconductor revolution as it further connects, sparks and enhances society.

 

Superconductivity's humble beginning

Luvata is thus honored to celebrate this seminal technology’s 100th birthday. In recounting superconductivity’s humble origins, transformative applications and astonishing promise, one sees that the centennial of superconductors marks not the end of a story of scientific triumph – but the beginning of a thrilling new chapter. Superconductors represent the hottest field in science for the last two decades, one that remains ripe for discovery and advancement.

So what are superconductors and what makes them so special? Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity without electrical resistance, which dissipates the charge.  No resistance means no wasted energy, no inefficiencies – virtually no limits. Putting an electrical charge through a traditional wire versus a superconductor compares to teeing off into a strong Florida headwind versus blasting a drive off the Muir space station into the sun.

In normal electrical conductors, electrons travel individually. Their energy is sapped with every bump into an obstacle, requiring a boost from an external power supply to achieve their destination.

In superconductors, something magical happens when cooled to a material-specific temperature, called the critical temperature: the electrons seemingly work together. This happens as some of the electrons experience a transformation to a condensed state where they form electron pairs –called Cooper pairs – that effectively become teammates who catch one another’s energy. When one electron loses energy bumping into an obstacle, the other member catches it. Incredibly, the net energy remains unchanged without energy dissipation.

It’s the atomic template for the power partnerships that Luvata strives to emulate.

Electrons in a superconductor coil thus flow virtually indefinitely, without need of an external power supply, and without resistance from the material’s lattice of atoms and their electrons. When cooled to their critical temperatures, superconducting materials give humans a rare glimpse into a quantum mechanical phenomenon.

In 1911, Dutch scientist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes unintentionally achieved this no-resistance state by lowering the temperature of mercury with liquid helium to a mind-numbingly cold 4.2 Kelvin. That is just 4.2 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero, or −273C, the coldest known temperature in the universe, at which atomic motion stops. Onnes was shocked to see this effect, as he stumbled upon it while tinkering with applications of liquid helium, which he discovered in 1908.

Like water’s phase changes from ice to liquid to vapor at specific temperatures, Onnes had found a new temperature-driven physical state for conductive materials: the zero-resistance state. The law defining electrical resistance, called Ohm’s Law, had to be re-examined. It was like finding an exception to Newton’s law of gravity.

“It was an accident that superconductors were found,” said Dr. Kanithi. “Once that accident happened, people were making finds in it like in alchemy. People were trying to make gold. The same thing happened in superconductors: Guided by empirical relationships they were testing superconducting properties of everything they could find or synthesize.”

 

An exhilarating era of scientific discovery

Onnes’s breakthrough ushered in an exhilarating era of scientific discovery. In 1933, the theoretical foundations for MRIs were glimpsed when German researcher Walter Meissner found that superconductors repel a magnetic field. This discovery, dubbed the Meissner Effect, has been reproduced in high school physics labs across the globe with the classic experiment in which magnets are levitated over a superconductor steaming with liquid nitrogen.

But commercial applications appeared slowly. For the decades preceding WWII, scientific discoveries did not penetrate into people’s day-to-day lives. That began to change in the 1950s and 1960s as new superconducting materials emerged that functioned at higher magnetic fields. This enabled the building of magnets featuring very high field strengths in the large volumes necessary for various scientific applications.

Not surprisingly, high energy physics, HEP, first utilized the advantages of superconductivity on a large scale. Particle accelerator rings such as Tevatron, HERA, LHC and others represented the massive particle accelerators and detectors and experimental fusion test facilities – T7, T15, LCP, MFTF – being built that would not have been possible without superconductors. After all, operating such tremendous machines using resistive magnets would have required a power plant of several hundred megawatts next door.

These science applications yielded discoveries that enabled the engineering innovations and advances in cryogenics and material science that have paved the way to commercial applications like MRI and NMR. What’s more, the need to work at very low temperatures is no longer a Herculean task.

Luvata’s niobium-titanium and niobium-tin superconductors are defined as low temperature superconductors (LTS), and are not to be confused with high temperature superconductors (HTS), in which Luvata currently has just exploratory interest. Discovered in 1986, HTS materials are ceramic oxides that would typically function as insulators, conducting no electrical charge. But they were discovered, shockingly, to display no resistance at temperatures as high as 132 K depending on the material.

“There are three types of people in the field of superconductivity,” said Kanithi, whose 40 years researching and working with superconductors include a Master’s and Doctorate degree from University of California at Berkeley, with 30 of those years with Luvata in its different iterations.

“One, those who intentionally or accidentally discover superconductors. Two, those who try to explain why the superconductors behave the way they do and three, those who make it their business to make superconductors that actually work. And we belong to the last category."

 

a vast horizon

Visionary researchers from General Electric formed their own company in 1971, Intermagnetics General Corporation (IGC) to successfully build laboratory-sized superconductor magnets. These magnets became the foundation for MRI machines in the 1980s.  The superconducting materials segment of IGC has become Luvata Waterbury, Inc.

Luvata’s superconductors are used in the world’s most powerful particle accelerators such as the Tevetron at Fermi National Laboratory near Chicago and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. And in 2010 Luvata was awarded a $10 million contract by CEA Saclay in France to supply superconductor cable for the world’s strongest MRI machine at a whopping 11.75 Tesla, 4 – 10 times more powerful than conventional MRI machines. To squeeze more out of the superconductors, the magnet coils will operate at 2o Kelvin rather than at 4o  Kelvin, the boiling point of liquid helium. The CEA Saclay project is expected to achieve new insights into brain activity and pinpoint the causes of Alzheimer’s Disease.

“That’s another example of pushing the envelope of superconductor technology to another degree,” said Kanithi.

The superconductive horizon is vast. An initiative to answer global energy demand is being marshaled by a $20 billion, six-country-plus-the-European Union consortium of superconductor innovators called the ITER project. The ITER project aims to employ the exciting properties of superconductors to achieve nuclear fusion, a clean-burning energy process that is theoretically infinite and as powerful as the sun. What was once considered the province of science fiction has become a concrete target for scientists and engineers, whose greatest obstacle to such endeavor lies in proper funding, said Dr. Kanithi.

The more we discover about superconductors, the more they will touch our lives. And Luvata expects to remain at the forefront of future expansions into the burgeoning fields of MRI and NMR imaging, high energy physics, fusion energy development, levitating trains, power transmission, energy storage, silicon crystal growers for computer parts, and proton beam therapy for cancer treatment.

“We’ll be busy making superconductors,” said Dr. Kanithi.

                                 

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About Luvata

Luvata is a world leader in metal solutions manufacturing and related engineering services. Luvata’s solutions are used in industries such as renewable energy, power generation, automotive, medicine, air-conditioning, industrial refrigeration, and consumer products. The company’s continued success is attributed to its longevity, technological excellence and strategy of building partnerships beyond metals. Employing over 6,400 staff in 13 countries, Luvata works in partnership with customers such as Siemens, Toyota, CERN, and DWD International.

Press contacts

Justin Roux
SVP Communications
justin.roux@luvata.com
Tel: +44 (0)208 380 0300

Susan Porter
Communications Manager
Publications & PR
susan.porter@luvata.com
Tel:  +740 368 7750

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