The discovery of high-temperature superconductors in 1986 resulted in a Nobel Prize for physics the following year – not to mention predictions of a revolution in energy transmission. We were going to enjoy lossless power transmission, and trains that hovered over their rails thanks to powerful magnetic fields, among many other benefits.
However, we have had to wait for a quarter of a century for an application that has actually led to something practical. The barrier has been broken by Magne Runde and Niklas Magnusson of SINTEF Energy Research, who this week received the European Innovation Award in Brussels.
The award is set up by EARTO, the European organisation for research institutions, whose 350 members carry out contract research and technology transfer for industry, trade associations and the public sector.
Superconducting materials carry electric current without resistance. However, they need to be cooled to extremely low temperatures to acquire this property. High-temperature superconductors do not need to be cooled to such low temperatures. Utilising these materials enabled Runde and Magnusson to develop manufacturing processes that save energy.
Thanks to technology developed by Runde and Magnusson, high-temperature superconductors are now in use at a handful of plants in the copper and aluminium smelting industries in Europe.
The starting point is a superconducting material that is cooled to about 200 degrees below zero. This was the basis for SINTEF’s development of a new generation of induction kilns that heat aluminium and copper billets before these are extruded into profiles and turned into the products that we see all around us – everything, in fact from lighting fixtures to window frames.
“We are not going to save the world with our solution. All the same, we are the first to have developed an application for high-temperature superconductors that has actuallybeen adopted by industry. We also think it is quite amusing when people come and ask, "How big is your group?" The answer is that there are only two of us, and that we only work part-time on superconductors,” say Magne Runde and Niklas Magnusson, two senior scientists at SINTEF Energy.