Applications of superconductors: The first large scale commercial application of superconductivity was in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This is a non-intrusive medical imaging technique that creates a two-dimensional picture of say tumors and other abnormalities within the body or brain. This requires a person to be placed inside a large and uniform electromagnet with a high magnetic field. Although normal electromagnets can be used for
this purpose, because of resistance they would dissipate a great deal of heat and have large power requirements. Superconducting magnets on the other hand have almost no power requirements apart from operating the cooling. Once electrical current flows in the superconducting wire, the power supply can be
switched off because the wires can be formed into a loop and the current will persist indefinitely as long as the temperature is kept below the transition temperature of the superconductor.
Superconductors can also be used to make a device known as a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID). This is incredibly sensitive to small magnetic fields so that it can detect the magnetic fields from the heart (10-10 Tesla) and even the brain (10-13 Tesla). For comparison, the Earth’s magnetic
field is about 10-4 Tesla. As a result, SQUIDs are used in non-intrusive medical diagnostics on the brain.
The traditional use of superconductors has been in scientific research where high magnetic field electromagnets are required. The cost of keeping the superconductor cool are much smaller than the cost of operating normal electromagnets, which dissipate heat and have high power requirements. One such application of powerful electromagnets is in high energy physics where beams of protons and other particles are accelerated to almost light speeds and collided with each other so that more fundamental particles are produced. It is expected that this research will answer fundamental questions such as those
about the origin of the mass of particles that make up the Universe.
Levitating trains have been built that use powerful electromagnets made from superconductors. The superconducting electromagnets are mounted on the train. Normal electromagnets, on a guideway beneath the train, repel (or attract) the superconducting electromagnets to levitate the train while pulling it
A use of large and powerful superconducting electromagnets is in a possible future energy source known as nuclear fusion. When two light nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, the process is called nuclear fusion. This results in the release of large amounts of energy without any harmful waste. Two isotopes of
hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, will fuse to release energy and helium. Deuterium is available in ordinary water and tritium can be made during the nuclear fusion reactions from another abundantly available element – lithium. For this reason it is called clean nuclear energy. For this reaction to occur, the deuterium and tritium gases must be heated to millions of degrees so that they become fully ionized. As a result, they must be confined in space so that they do not escape while being heated. Powerful and large electromagnets made from superconductors are capable of confining these energetic ions. An international
fusion energy project, known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is currently being built in the south of France that will use large superconducting magnets and is due for completion in 2017. It is expected that this will demonstrate energy production using nuclear fusion.