Ames Lab designing new superconductor project

Deborah Jacobsen

The latest research at the Ames Laboratory could someday change the way electricity is conducted and carried to your home.

The Ames Lab has been commissioned by the Department of Energy to complete two research projects dealing with superconductor technology.

“The research will attempt to enrich the performance of high superconductor wires, which will be used to create more compact and efficient electric utility products,” said, Mark Bowman, of ISU’s Office of Public Affairs and Information.

The Ames Lab will be working closely with the American Superconductor Corp. (AMSC) located in Westborough, Mass, for the next three years to create high-temperature superconductors. These conductors will have about 2.5 times the normal amount of electrical-current-carrying capacity.

John Clem, Ames Lab physicist, defines a superconductor as a “metal which, when cooled to some low temperature, makes a sudden transition into a state with zero electrical resistance. Mercury and lead are just a few superconductors used today. Each one has a characteristic temperature at which the material goes into the superconductor state.”

Both the Ames Lab and the AMSC were asked by the Department of Energy’s Superconductivity Partnership Initiative Program to come up with a 30-meter prototype cable conductor.

“The prototype will demonstrate the cables advantages over conventional underground electric cables,” said Alex Malazemoff, chief technical officer of the American Superconductor Corporation.

The AMSC has been researching and developing a new class of superconducting materials discovered in 1986, called cuprites. These cuprites, made of copper and oxygen atoms, will be used to assemble the conducting wires.

In the case of the cuprite metals, the transition temperatures are much higher. This property allows the metals to be less electrically resistant and in turn are able to handle increased amounts of current through transmission lines without becoming hot.

Matthew Kramer, a scientist at the Ames Lab, is in charge of the second research project, which involves different techniques for forming the wires.

The process used today involves putting ceramic materials into a tube to try to draw out a wire. The result is a very brittle wire that does not work well, he said.

Kramer’s research focuses on forming the oxide after the wire drawing process instead of before. Metal constituents are used to first draw out the wire under metallic form and oxidizing it afterward. He says this produces a thinner cross section that will make the wire more flexible and energy efficient.

Bowman said this is the third research project the Ames Lab has done with AMSC.

“The Ames Lab has world-renowned expertise in the area of material synthesis, processing, and designs. It’s kind of our claim to fame,” Bowman said.