Superconducting Magnet

A superconducting magnet is an electromagnet made from coils of superconducting wire. They must be cooled to cryogenic temperatures during operation. In its superconducting state the wire has no electrical resistance and therefore can conduct much larger electric currents than ordinary wire, creating intense magnetic fields. Superconducting magnets can produce greater magnetic fields than all but the strongest non-superconducting electromagnets and can be cheaper to operate because no energy is dissipated as heat in the windings. They are used in MRI machines in hospitals, and in scientific equipment such as NMR spectrometers, mass spectrometers, fusion reactors and particle accelerators. They are also used for levitation, guidance and propulsion in a magnetic levitation (maglev) railway system being constructed in Japan.

Superconducting Magnet

Superconducting Magnet

During operation, the magnet windings must be cooled below their critical temperature, the temperature at which the winding material changes from the normal resistive state and becomes a superconductor. Typically the windings are cooled to temperatures significantly below their critical temperature, because the lower the temperature, the better superconductive windings work—the higher the currents and magnetic fields they can stand without returning to their nonsuperconductive state. Two types of cooling regimes are commonly used to maintain magnet windings at temperatures sufficient to maintain superconductivity:

Liquid cooled
Liquid helium is used as a coolant for many superconductive windings. It has a boiling point of 4.2 K, far below the critical temperature of most winding materials. The magnet and coolant are contained in a thermally insulated container (dewar) called a cryostat. To keep the helium from boiling away, the cryostat is usually constructed with an outer jacket containing (significantly cheaper) liquid nitrogen at 77 K. Alternatively, a thermal shield made of conductive material and maintained in 40 K-60 K temperature range, cooled by conductive connections to the cryocooler cold head, is placed around the helium-filled vessel to keep the heat input to the latter at acceptable level. One of the goals of the search for high temperature superconductors is to build magnets that can be cooled by liquid nitrogen alone. At temperatures above about 20 K cooling can be achieved without boiling off cryogenic liquids.

Mechanical cooling
Because of increasing cost and the dwindling availability of liquid helium, many superconducting systems are cooled using two stage mechanical refrigeration. In general two types of mechanical cryocoolers are employed which have sufficient cooling power to maintain magnets below their critical temperature. The Gifford-McMahon Cryocooler has been commercially available since the 1960s and has found widespread application. The G-M regenerator cycle in a cryocooler operates using a piston type displacer and heat exchanger. Alternatively, 1999 marked the first commercial application using a pulse tube cryocooler. This design of cryocooler has become increasingly common due to low vibration and long service interval as pulse tube designs utilize an acoustic process in lieu of mechanical displacement. Typical to two stage refrigerators the first stage will offer higher cooling capacity but at higher temperature ≈77 K with the second stage being at ≈4.2 K and <2.0 watts cooling power. In use, the first stage is used primarily for ancillary cooling of the cryostat with the second stage used primarily for cooling the magnet.

Coil winding materials
The maximal magnetic field achievable in a superconducting magnet is limited by the field at which the winding material ceases to be superconducting, its “critical field”, Hc, which for type-II superconductors is its upper critical field. Another limiting factor is the “critical current”, Ic, at which the winding material also ceases to be superconducting. Advances in magnets have focused on creating better winding materials.

The superconducting portions of most current magnets are composed of niobium-titanium. This material has critical temperature of 10 kelvins and can superconduct at up to about 15 teslas. More expensive magnets can be made of niobium-tin (Nb3Sn). These have a Tc of 18 K. When operating at 4.2 K they are able to withstand a much higher magnetic field intensity, up to 25 to 30 teslas. Unfortunately, it is far more difficult to make the required filaments from this material. This is why sometimes a combination of Nb3Sn for the high-field sections and NbTi for the lower-field sections is used. Vanadium-gallium is another material used for the high-field inserts.

High-temperature superconductors (e.g. BSCCO or YBCO) may be used for high-field inserts when required magnetic fields are higher than Nb3Sn can manage. BSCCO, YBCO or magnesium diboride may also be used for current leads, conducting high currents from room temperature into the cold magnet without an accompanying large heat leak from resistive leads.

Conductor structure
The coil windings of a superconducting magnet are made of wires or tapes of Type II superconductors (e.g.niobium-titanium or niobium-tin). The wire or tape itself may be made of tiny filaments (about 20 micrometers thick) of superconductor in a copper matrix. The copper is needed to add mechanical stability, and to provide a low resistance path for the large currents in case the temperature rises above Tc or the current rises above Ic and superconductivity is lost. These filaments need to be this small because in this type of superconductor the current only flows in a surface layer whose thickness is limited to the london penetration depth. (See Skin effect) The coil must be carefully designed to withstand (or counteract) magnetic pressure and Lorentz forces that could otherwise cause wire fracture or crushing of insulation between adjacent turns.


An MRI machine that uses a superconducting magnet. The magnet is inside the doughnut-shaped housing and can create a 3-tesla field inside the central hole.
Superconducting magnets have a number of advantages over resistive electromagnets. They can generate magnetic fields that are up to ten times stronger than those generated by ordinary ferromagnetic-core electromagnets, which are limited to fields of around 2 T. The field is generally more stable, resulting in less noisy measurements. They can be smaller, and the area at the center of the magnet where the field is created is empty rather than being occupied by an iron core. Most importantly, for large magnets they can consume much less power. In the persistent state (above), the only power the magnet consumes is that needed for any refrigeration equipment to preserve the cryogenic temperature. Higher fields, however can be achieved with special cooled resistive electromagnets, as superconducting coils will enter the normal (non-superconducting) state (see quench, above) at high fields. Steady fields of over 40 T can now be achieved by many institutions around the world usually by combining a Bitter electromagnet with a superconducting magnet (often as an insert).

Superconducting magnets are widely used in MRI machines, NMR equipment, mass spectrometers, magnetic separation processes, and particle accelerators.

In Japan, after decades of research and development into superconducting maglev by Japanese National Railways and later Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central), the Japanese government gave permission to JR Central to build the Chūō Shinkansen, linking Tokyo to Nagoya and later to Osaka.

One of the most challenging use of SC magnets is in the LHC particle accelerator. The niobium-titanium (Nb-Ti) magnets operate at 1.9 K to allow them to run safely at 8.3 T. Each magnet stores 7 MJ. In total the magnets store 10.4 gigajoules (2.5 tons of TNT). Once or twice a day, as the protons are accelerated from 450 GeV to 7 TeV, the field of the superconducting bending magnets will be increased from 0.54 T to 8.3 T.

The central solenoid and toroidal field superconducting magnets designed for the ITER fusion reactor use niobium-tin (Nb3Sn) as a superconductor. The Central Solenoid coil will carry 46 kA and produce a field of 13.5 teslas. The 18 Toroidal Field coils at max field of 11.8 T will store 41 GJ (total?). They have been tested at a record 80 kA. Other lower field ITER magnets (PF and CC) will use niobium-titanium. Most of the ITER magnets will have their field varied many times per hour.

One high-resolution mass spectrometer is planned to use a 21-tesla SC magnet.

Globally in 2014, about five billion euros worth of economic activity resulted from which superconductivity is indispensable. MRI systems, most of which employ niobium-titanium, accounted for about 80% of that total.

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