Envision power lines, thousands of miles long, transmitting electricity to Europe from hydroelectric plants in Africa, power-transmission reservoirs that hold electric current for release during voltage sags or peak usage periods . . . magnetically levitated vehicles gliding above tracks at high speed without friction . . . handheld magnetic-resonance-imaging devices . . . magnetic remediation of nuclear waste . . . even launching vehicles into space via electric power. These are some of the promises of superconductivity -- the ability to pass electric current without loss of energy caused by resistance.
Fascinating the scientific community since its discovery in 1911, superconductivity has fallen short of its commercial promises in part because the original class of superconductors require cooling to temperatures approaching absolute zero to exhibit their magical properties. In 1986 IBM Corp. scientists in Zurich identified unique copper oxides that exhibited superconductivity at temperatures that could be achieved with liquid nitrogen or mechanical refrigeration, dubbed high-temperature superconductors (HTS). As brittle ceramics, however, they could not be easily formed into the most basic tools of electricity and magnetism management: wires.
Enter American Superconductor Corp. (ASC), Westborough, Mass., and its fettuccine-like composite HTS wire. Crowning eight years of composition and processing refinement, the technology blossomed this spring to yield wire that provides superconductor performance in a form that is flexible enough to be wound into coils for motors, generators, transformers, and more, while at the same time strong enough to allow mechanical stranding into long cables for power transmission. Capitalizing on this new HTS wire technology, ASC realized significant achievements in 1995:
- Twenty thousand feet of HTS wire was delivered to Italian partner Pirelli Cavi S.p.A., to machine weave an electric-power-transmission cable conductor 100 feet long -- by far the longest ever made and the first ever stranded by a machine. The wire was woven around a hollow tube that will carry liquid nitrogen for cooling. Successful commercialization of this type of cable could alter power transmission for all time, considering HTS wires can carry 100 times the current density of copper wires.
- ASC created an HTS-wire coil exhibiting a magnetic field 50% higher than had ever been reported (electricity running through a superconductor creates a super magnetic field). Los Alamos National Laboratory is investigating the technology for remediation of earth contaminated at nuclear test sites, since radioactive waste has a slight magnetic moment and can be separated with super magnetism.
- ASC filled its first commercial order, an HTS current lead for an electric-power grid-stabilization device designed by Babcock & Wilcox. Designed to carry large amounts of electric current, the lead achieved a world-record capacity of 16,000 amps. The device itself allows electric current to circle around without loss of energy in a low-temperature superconductor (LTS) coil, like an airplane in a holding pattern. It draws off current during surges and doles out energy during sags to level out current flow. The HTS lead carries the electricity in/out of the coil without the attendant heat rise associated with resistance, which would increase insulation requirements of the LTS coil.
- Using ASC HTS wire for the windings, Reliance Electric Co. demonstrated a 5-hp electric motor, and by yearend will demonstrate a 125-hp motor. Forecast are HTS-based motors of more than 1,000 hp that will be half the size and weight of copper-based motors, with lower operating cost. For instance, at 5,000 hp, an HTS-based motor will save users about $170,000 in the first two years of operation because of reduced power requirements.
- ASC HTS wire was shipped to Asea Brown Boveri Group for windings in a transformer scheduled to go on line at a Geneva substation in 1996. Also, an ASC HTS-wire coil was delivered to the Air Force for a one-megawatt generator prototype, and Southern California Edison/Lockheed Martin demonstrated a prototype substation-size current limiter- -- essentially a large industrial surge protector -- based on ASC HTS wire and coil technology.
"I'm looking at 1995 as a turning point, because with those significant prototypes, there's a real strong signal that HTS technology will be commercialized and that we're moving into real product development, not just more and more R&D," says CEO Greg Yurek.
Like many materials researchers of the late '80s, Yurek was caught up in the excitement of the discoveries in the field of high-temperature superconductivity. "I thought it would change our entire society," he says. A metallurgist and full professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge at the time, Yurek collaborated with MIT colleague John Vander Sande in 1987 to create the composite HTS wire by what has now evolved into a toothpaste-like fabrication technique.
A tube of silver containing powdered HTS is squeezed through metal dies to a precursor flattened form. The deformation, followed by heat treating, creates a multifilamentary structure in the ceramic, while encasing it in a malleable, tough outer sheathing. "Going into the laboratory and pulling something out of the furnace, getting a look at it in the microscope, and, lo and behold, it's just what you pictured in your mind -- that's the eureka moment," says Yurek.
Patent applications were filed in March 1987, Yurek and Vander Sande formed ASC in April, and in August Yurek left his tenured position at MIT to assume the role of CEO. "A lot of people thought I was crazy, but we really felt we had something powerful in terms of our technology, and I was excited about being able to commercialize the discovery," he says. ASC went public in 1991, and in two offerings raised $49 million to go with an initial $9 million in venture capital. Today, ASC has 125 employees and in 1996 will increase wire-production capability another 50% to more than 500,000 feet per year.
Focusing on the electric-power industry, ASC has assembled materials scientists, experts in wire manufacturing and the design and manufacture of electromagnetic coils, and marketing/sales personnel from OEMs who supply electric utilities.
This expertise has been parlayed into working relationships with corporate and government partners to help share the risk of product commercialization into new markets ASC is developing at the same time. For instance, the power-transmission-cable project is part of a contract with the Electric Power Research Institute and the Dept. of Energy. Pirelli Cavi S.p.A., the second largest cable manufacturer in the world, is supporting the project financially, weaving the cable, and will get future manufacturing and marketing rights.
Directing their energies toward wires and prototypes with specific performance requirements has helped shift the focus from the phenomenon of superconductivity to the reality of doing business.
"That's good for us, because you are directing your technology toward the needs of a customer application and getting your organization to rally around the delivery of a product as opposed to rallying around the science," says Yurek. "I believe that makes all the difference in the world in terms of the speed of development."
For instance, power-transmission cable based on HTS wire had previously been woven gently by hand because of the wire's low strength. Meeting the mechanical requirements of Pirelli's weaving machine forced ASC to rethink its formulation and fabrication techniques. In January, ASC reengineered the wire and not only met specs for mechanical requirements, but improved current-carrying capacity as well, resulting in another patent application.
Protecting intellectual property in a field where thousands of patents have been issued worldwide already is a basic business objective. ASC is well covered with its 1987 patent on manufacturing technique -- which evolved into a series of patents issuing from the original application -- and a "fundamental composition of matter" patent based on the wire composite issued in 1993.
The main challenge for worldwide leadership comes from Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd. in Japan. "What has clearly emerged over the last couple of years is that ASC and Sumitomo are far ahead of anyone else," says Yurek. "But nobody is really challenging patents at this time because we aren't truly in the commercial marketplace yet. Our strategy is to build up our patent portfolio and make sure we have a number of zingers in the pile. That means when we get into the commercial world, we can be one of the companies that can trade patents."
In fact the commercial marketplace is not that far off, and there are some real bonanzas awaiting. ASC is on target for introduction of its line of HTS-based CryoPower AC/DC power converters in 1997, in a market currently valued at $200 million. Supplying HTS wire to its partners for transformer launch in 1999 challenges a $3 billion market with technology that could cut the weight of these 300-ton behemoths in half, facilitating siting, transport, and manufacture. A 2,000-hp-motor launch via partner Reliance Electric -- in a market worth more than $1 billion based on today's technology -- is scheduled for century end, as is the underground-power-transmission cable launch with Pirelli. Currently the underground cable market is valued at $700 million, but 99% of existing cable is above ground.
"What an opportunity," says Yurek. "I predict a fully deregulated and very competitive electric-power industry, like the long-distance telephone market. As an individual, you'll be selecting your energy provider based on price, service, performance, and quality of electric power. I believe the market leaders will depend on high-temperature superconductors."
American Superconductor's CEO says, "I tell our people we are very lucky, because we have the opportunity to create products that really do have value for end-use customers and all mankind. That's another fundamental driver for us to succeed."