PROCESS AND TECHNOLOGY STATUS – Superconductivity is the ability of certain metals, alloys and ceramic materials to let electrical current flow with no electrical resistance and energy dissipation. Superconductivity appears at below a certain (critical) temperature, which is between 30K and 120K (-243°C and -153°C) for high-temperature superconductors (HTS) and below 20K (-253°C) for the low-temperature superconductors (LTS). Superconducting properties disappear if the temperature rises above the critical value, but also in the presence of high current density or strong external magnetic fields. The critical values of temperature, magnetic field and current density are specific characteristics of each superconductor material. Almost all of today’s superconductors are based on Nb (niobium) and Nb-alloys LTS wires, which have already reached a high level of industrialization. LTS use is common practice in the production of small superconducting magnets for medical diagnostics (magnetic resonance imaging, MRI), in research applications, and in large superconducting magnets for world-scale experimental facilities (nuclear fusion, particle accelerators and detectors for high-energy physics). At present, LTS represent a commercially available technology while ceramic HTS are still under development. HTS research has been recently boosted by new discoveries and focuses on the complex ceramic HTS materials and their production process. Advanced cryogenics plays
a key technical and economic role in superconductivity, and may drive important developments.
PERFORMANCE & COSTS – Superconductors offer several advantages over conventional electrical conductors. They enable the manufacturing of components (e.g., high-field magnets) that could not be feasible using conventional conductors.
The energy saving due to the absence of electrical resistance more than compensates for the energy required to maintain superconductors’ operation temperature. Superconducting devices are typically 50% smaller and lighter than equivalent conventional components and their manufacturing process generate no incremental emissions of greenhouse gases. Their cooling is ensured by non-flammable liquid nitrogen or helium, as opposed to flammable and/or toxic oil coolant used in high performance conventional components. Apart from the cooling system, the typical cost of LTS per unit of carried electrical current (€/m-A) is at least than ten times lower than the cost of an equivalent conventional conductor. All these advantages translate into technical and economic benefits. Nevertheless, considering the cost of superconductors’ cooling system, superconductivity is not yet economically competitive with conventional conductors in most applications, and its economic convenience must be assessed by cost/benefits analyses on case–by-case basis.
POTENTIAL AND BARRIERS – Research and MRI applications account for almost all today’s global superconductivity market (some € 4 billion in 2007), with MRI being by far the dominant commercial application. Research and MRI are expected to also play a central role in the future market and to constantly grow up to € 4.5 billion by 2013. However, HTS materials and new applications may offer important new business opportunities. Emerging fields could be large-scale applications for power production and transportation, electronic devices for information and communication technologies (ICT), and new medical applications such as ultra-high resolution systems for MRI. HTS cost-to-performance ratio as well as cost and technical development of commercial cooling systems for both LTS and HTS are currently the main barriers to large superconductivity deployment. These obstacles could be overcame by technical advances by the end of this decade and give rise to new start-up markets which could reach some € 0.6 billion by 2013. The identification of niche markets and pilot customers as well as ramping up the existing production facilities are important elements for market deployment. However, the lesson learned from other material-based technologies imply that the large deployment of superconductors will take considerable additional time.