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HTS Technology

 

As more and more people enjoy the benefit of modern civilization, energy demand are increasingly severe. In this "digital era", we still depend on power systems designed for the past, and where the only changes are the constantly thicker cables and larger generator units. As a result, the energy supply shortage is becoming increasingly serious, while at the same time a large amount of electric energy is lost through out the existing power system. At present, the electric energy loss accounts for about 9% of the gross output of electric power generation, with 90% due to electric cables. By 2010, China will lose two or three times of the power generation output of the Three-Gorges Power Plant based on the estimates of installed gross capacity. In the United States, the loss in electric transmission lines alone can reach up to USD 4 billion each year. If HTS wires are adopted, we can not only avoid the loss, but also save using a large amount of metal.


1. Superconductivity and High Temperature Superconductivity 

In 1911, Onnes, the Dutch scientist, discovered that when mercury was cooled to the low temperature of liquid helium (4.2K), its resistance suddenly dropped to zero. This property of materials with sudden disappearance of resistance at low temperatures is referred to as superconductivity. The transition temperature below which superconductivity is observed is called the critical temperature (Tc). 


(1) Low Temperature Superconducting Materials

The critical temperature of low temperature superconducting materials is below 10K and the superconducting properties of these materials can only be utilized at the temperature of liquid helium (4K). The applications of low temperature superconducting materials have been largely limited since they are characteristically very costly to produce, and prohibitively expensive to cool to the required temperature of liquid helium. Currently, the commercialized low temperature superconducting wires mainly include NbTi and Nb3Sn, which are mainly used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetic accelerator applications. These applications share a market valued over USD 1 billion worldwide. 


(2) High Temperature Superconducting (HTS) Materials

HTS materials are those whose resistance is close to zero at the critical temperature of 77K. They usually can be utilized in a liquid nitrogen (77K) cryogenic environment, which only requires low cost. HTS materials are mainly divided into two families: (1) yttrium-barium superconductors-copper-oxide (YBCO) and (2) bismuth-strontium--calcium-copper-oxide (BSCCO). Superconductors YBCO materials are generally used to manufacture superconducting thin films with applications in electronics and communication areas. BSCCO materials are mainly used to manufacture wire with applications in power generation and transmission systems. 



2.commercialization of Bismuth-Family HTS Wires

Since the discovery of HTS materials in 1986, countries all over the world have invested many-billion US dollars in scientific research on the commercialization of HTS materials. As a result of this research effort (more than 10 years research), among the HTS materials of YBCO and BSCCO, the bismuth-family HTS wires firstly realized the industrialization in 1997, which is the only industrialized HTS material so far. 



3. Applications of HTS Wires

HTS wires have primary advantages of low loss, and high current carrying capacity (as much as 100 times more than that of ordinary conducting wires) and more. The R&D of HTS wire applications has resulted in some great achievements. 


(1) HTS Cables:

The capacity expansion problem of existing cables has long retarded the development of power networks in urban areas. Moreover, conventional urban underground power cables have low current carrying capacity, high power loss, thermal pollution and oil contamination for soils and ground water as well as a high civil construction cost, all of which increase the problems with upgrading urban power systems. With benefits of small size, low cost, excellent energy saving efficiency and no pollution, HTS cables show huge potential for both economic and environment protection benefits, and will eventually replace conventional cables. 


(2) HTS Electric Motor:

Electric motors are the most commonly used electrical equipment, but conventional electric motors have high electric power consumption. U.S. industry experts have estimated that industrial motors of more than 1,000 hp consume about 25% of U.S. energy. Compared with conventional electric motors, superconducting motors have advantages of excellent energy saving efficiency, small size, large capacity of a single unit, low manufacturing and operation cost, as well as stable performance, all of which promise good economic and environmental protection benefits. In case of the same power, the size of HTS electric motors will be 33% smaller than conventional motors, with 40% reduced cost, 50% reduced current loss and 50% reduced working capital. According to estimates made by the U.S. DOE, the low loss of HTS electric motors can reduce operating expenses by as much as several billions of US dollars each year.
Meanwhile, HTS motors offer great military value when being used for warships, including less size and weight of the vehicles, more flexible spatial layout, more reliable operation of propelling system, higher efficiency, better controllability, more controllable speed, greatly improved stealthiness, and high-speed and quiet running.


(3) HTS Transformer:

Conventional transformers have many disadvantages, such as high load loss, large size and heavy weight, low load carrying capacity, no current limiting functionality, oil pollution and short operational lifetime. In the United States, the installed gross capacity of transformers is about two or three times higher than the gross output of electric power generation, and 25% of total power losses are due to transformers. Compared with conventional transformers, superconducting transformers are both compact and lightweight, have high voltage conversion energy efficiency, eliminate hazards of fire, have a low environmental cost, and are oil-free. Superconducting transformers have very important and far-reaching significance in terms of increasing the reliability and operational performance of power systems, reducing costs, saving energy and protecting the environment. 


(4) HTS Fault Current Limiters: 

Fault current limiters (FCL) are a kind of electric device designed to increase stability of the utility grid. With increasing demands on the stability of the utility grid, it is almost impossible for conventional fault current limiters to respond to current surges within the required time. HTS fault current limiters are an ideal solution to this problem, as their response time is very short, allowing them to limit fault current quickly and efficiently.
Regarded as the best and only feasible devices now available for short-circuit fault current limitation, HTS fault current limiters (FCL) limit current using superconductor’s physical property of converting between superconducting state and normal state, and can be integrated with functions of testing, triggering and current limitation. 


(5) HTS Magnetic Separators:

Magnetic separators play a crucial role in purifying and separating materials. The application of conventional magnetic separators is greatly limited by the incapability of producing high magnetic fields. As HTS wires possess 100 times the current flow capacity of conventional copper wires, magnetic separators of HTS wires can generate significantly stronger magnetic fields and larger magnetic field gradients. HTS magnetic separators not only are energy efficient, but also are capable of separating many materials which can not be separated by conventional magnetic separators. Another area where HTS magnetic separators can significantly enhance the processing capacity is in sewage treatment, promising a revolution in the environmental protection/waste treatment industry. 



(6) Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI):

MRI is a technique designed to diagnose pathological states by detecting the different signals of various organs of human body induced by a magnetic field. Conventional MRI often cannot detect pathological conditions/changes in their early stage due to the weak magnetic fields of the conventional magnets used. Furthermore, in conventional MRI, the main magnetic field is within a tightly enclosed magnet space, and the subject is required to lie in a narrow space isolated from outside, which may cause claustrophobia, and retards the wider application of MRI. As an effective solution to this problem, low temperature superconducting magnets have been widely adopted for the MRI. However, the operational and maintenance costs of low temperature superconducting MRI are quite high, due largely to the high cost to achieve and maintain the required low temperature of liquid helium. At present many countries are hastening the research and development of HTS MRI. In 1998, Oxford Magnet Technology Ltd. developed a HTS magnet for use in human body MRI instrument. 


(7) Magnetic Levitation (MAGLEV) Trains:

Along with the development of national economy, the demand for public transportation has been inflating rapidly, leading to the birth of high-speed trains. With its advantages such as higher speed, better safety, lower noise and smaller footprint, superconducting maglev is a more ideal vehicle for the future in comparison with the four existing conventional modes of transportation including the rail, road, water and air.

On the other hand, military applications will form a tremendous potential market of HTS wire materials, and it is anticipated that breakthrough can be made in the coming few years in application of the HTS technology in areas such as propelling motor for ships, minesweeping gears and microwave weapons. 



Superconducting wires, as a new type material, will be widely applied to a great variety of areas in the national and international arena economy, including both military and commercial use. HTS wires and associated products have a bright prospect and will start a brand new superconducting era, just as the previous replacement of electronic tubes with transistors.


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