Innovative Kiwis lead the world in superconductor technology

Learn more about superconductors and the men who are pioneers in the development and construction of some of the most powerful high field magnets and electrical coils in the world.

Learn more about superconductors and the men who are pioneers in the development and construction of some of the most powerful high field magnets and electrical coils in the world.

It’s pouring rain in Lower Hutt when we visit superconductor specialist company HTS-110 located on the Callaghan Innovation site in Gracefield. The stone and white buildings look even more imposing under the grey light. We’re here to learn more about superconductors and the men who are pioneers in the development and construction of some of the most powerful high field magnets and electrical coils in the world.

By Kina Sai

“HTS-110 came into existence in 2004 after 19 years of research by a group of material researchers from the old government department, DSIR and in later years the now defunct crown entity Industrial Research Limited,” says Simon Gibson, production manager.

Simon worked at DSIR in the superconductor research group for 20 years, “basically from the start” and was part of the team that came up with the new material compound.

“A world patent was awarded for a unique superconducting material discovered by the group and this is now the most commonly used material in superconducting wire manufacture in the world.” Pretty impressive stuff.

Simon tells us many of the outlying blank white buildings are slated for demolition to allow Callaghan Innovation to build a technology park. Built in the 1950s – the heyday of utilitarianism. The place has a strange vibe on the outside but once inside their building everything changes. The workshop is cheery and bright. A small crew quietly works on their various components. Roles range from physicists to tradesmen. Everyone seems relaxed and happy to show us what their ‘thing’ does.

HTS-110 was started with a staff of two and has now expanded to 12.

Simon Gibson explains a bit about what they do. We get a ‘Superconductors 101’ crash course. He explains to us that basically they just “mix up a bunch of chemicals and then reduce it to a black powder” which is then reduced again to 85 separate filaments in a space of roughly 4 x 0.2mm, by Japanese company Sumitomo. These can carry the same current as a 70mm2 welding cable, around 250 amps.

That superconducting tape is then coiled and housed in an iron yoke. The outside of this incredible piece of engineering is at room temperature while the inside is -253C, wrapped in NASA designed Mylar insulation. This housing contains a high vacuum to prevent heat transfer.

“Until five years ago a lot of the stuff we’re building just couldn’t be built. It’s sort of a leading edge technology. We lead the world. No one else is really doing this,” says Simon.

“The key is operating at -250C where there is absolutely no electrical resistance in the superconducting tape. So you can put 250 amps through that tape and there’s absolutely no heat whatsoever, whereas like a welding cable if you wind it into a coil you generate huge amounts of heat and it just limits you. It means we can wind very compact powerful coils for motors, generators, magnets. We’re building systems that in the past you just couldn’t build.

“From an engineering perspective, -250C presents all kinds of problems, you’ve got to keep it that cold, there’s huge forces generated in these magnets but everything’s at -250C so it’s super brittle, you’ve got contraction; a huge amount of engineering issues to overcome.
“One of the key advantages we have is we have a very good understanding of the superconducting material.”

Simon tells us these magnets generate forces equivalent of up to 130,000 times that of the earth’s magnetic field. Terrifying. Right now they are being used in research labs for testing the material properties of things and the creation of new materials. They are also used in NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) research – used extensively by bio-chemists for examining chemical compounds.

It’s all incredibly high tech. I think there should be white coats and spacesuits handy but everyone is dressed in t-shirts, jeans, looking a lot like normal blokes. One guy wears an Investigate 9-11 t-shirt. Simon Gibson jokes about photoshopping. On the wall a sign extols the virtues of John Key. The men clearly come from different walks of life, have different perspectives and philosophies, yet meet here on common ground, united by science.
A large HTS-110 magnet can use up to 6000 metres of coiled superconducting wire. Twenty years ago the cost of producing it was incredibly prohibitive at US$400 per metre. Now it is $25 per metre. This means huge opportunities for the good.

“It’s only in the last ten years that this technology’s come through. So now it’s allowing labs to have even more compact systems but the cost of running them is nothing,” Simon tells us.

The team has developed in partnership with Victoria University’s, Robinson Research Institute, an MRI machine unit small enough to fit inside a van, substantially more compact and cheaper to run than the current hospital systems. This has third world implications or even an MRI in your local doctor’s office.

While these systems may be getting smaller, the potential for these cryocooled superconductors is enormous and multi-faceted in nature.
Simon explains there is huge potential for more efficient wind turbines with the use of their superconductors.

“A superconducting motor is much smaller and more lightweight but yet the power that goes into it is just a fraction [of what’s currently being used],” Simon tells me. “We’ve just built a whole lot of stuff to go to Denmark for a prototype wind turbine. One of the big problems with wind turbines is you have this huge generator and gearbox and all this way up on a big mast, so you’ve got to have a huge mast to support it all. If you have a superconducting generator it’s a fraction of the size, you don’t need such big blades, the whole thing’s shrunk right down.”

Wonderful news. To have ultra-efficient wind farms generating the bulk of our power, worldwide, could one day spell out the end of coal mining and other forms of fuel gathering for electricity purposes.

I like these guys at HTS-110. They have graciously put up with our silly questions for almost two hours. When we say our goodbyes the rain has stopped and the sky is brighter. It’s been a good morning. I know one day I will hear about Simon Gibson and his crew in the news for having brought van-size MRI machines to the third world, or because a great new efficient wind farm is being built in Taranaki. It’s always nice to spend time with innovative Kiwis doing good things for the right reasons.