3M Leads Team to Explore Superconducting Tape Technology

3M Leads Team to Explore Superconducting Tape Technology

Research into a new form of superconductor as a thin-film tape could increase electricity`s carrying capacity by 100 times and replace traditional copper and aluminum wire. According to 3M, the development is considered critical because the demand for electricity is expected to double during the next 30 years.

3M has signed an 18-month, $3 million agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to explore the feasibility of developing a new high-temperature, thin-film superconductor. The effort is part of the DOE`s national Superconductivity Program for Electric Power Systems.

3M`s partners in the effort include Southwire Co. and research within two DOE laboratories: Los Alamos National Lab, managed by the University of California, and Oak Ridge National Lab, managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corp.

The new technology is based on the use of a superconducting compound made from elements of yttrium, barium, copper and oxygen (YBCO). The compound is a material discovered in 1987 that has all the desired characteristics for use in the electrical power industry, except for one critical feature–the ability to be formed into wires and still maintain the necessary conductive properties.

However, two techniques have recently been developed that allow YBCO to be deposited as a thin film on a crystallographically textured substrate that overcomes this problem. Researchers at Los Alamos have produced a superconducting “tape” using YBCO that can carry one million amps per square centimeter. Oak Ridge researchers invented a different substrate, called rolling-assisted, biaxially-textured substrates, that can also produce one million amp superconducting films.

“If there is a way to scale up production of this technology for commercial use, its potential in applications like motors, generators, transformers, current limiters, underground power cables and magnetic energy storage is incredible,” said William Coyne, 3M Research and Development`s senior vice president. “Products using electrical wiring could be vastly improved. For instance, transformers could be produced at half the weight and operate without oil, and far more efficient motors would run more quietly and produce double the output. The advantages and benefits for electrical products could even outweigh the savings achievable from the increased long-distance, energy-carrying capacity.”

According to Jim Daley, DOE`s superconductivity team leader, the country is preparing for a profound change in the way electricity is generated, delivered and used. During the past few years, U.S. firms have established research benchmarks for prototype versions of superconducting motors, generators, power cables and current controllers, based on superconducting wires now being manufactured. The new superconducting tape technology could greatly improve the performance and cost of commercial versions, which should be introduced between 2000 and 2010.

However, according to Coyne, one of the main obstacles to commercial use is the ability to produce the tape in lengths necessary for high-volume, low-cost manufacturing–up to 300 meters–while still retaining superconductor properties. Currently, the longest tape available is less than one meter in length.

“The 3M research will determine the feasibility of manufacturing superconducting tape once we know that a pilot manufacturing program can be developed,” said Coyne.

Industry experts project that the entire market in the United States, Japan and Europe for superconductor products and services will reach $122 billion by the year 2020. “Because the demand for electricity is expected to double by the year 2030, the introduction of superconductors into everyday use is critical to meeting those future demands,” Daley said.

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