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 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 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 and particle accelerators.
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. Two types of cooling regimes are commonly used to maintain magnet windings at temperatures sufficient to maintain superconductivity:
Liquid helium is used as a coolant for most superconductive windings, even those with critical temperatures far above its boiling point of 4.2 K. This is 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. 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 40K-60K 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.
Due to 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 1960’s 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 ~77K with the second stage being at ~4.2K 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.
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.
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 skin-deep. 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.
The current to the coil windings is provided by a high current, very low voltage DC power supply, since in steady state the only voltage across the magnet is due to the resistance of the feeder wires. Any change to the current through the magnet must be done very slowly, first because electrically the magnet is a large inductor and an abrupt current change will result in a large voltage spike across the windings, and more importantly because fast changes in current can cause eddy currents and mechanical stresses in the windings that can precipitate a quench (see below). So the power supply is usually microprocessor-controlled, programmed to accomplish current changes gradually, in gentle ramps. It usually takes several minutes to energize or de-energize a laboratory-sized magnet.
An alternate operating mode, once the magnet has been energized, is to short-circuit the windings with a piece of superconductor. The windings become a closed superconducting loop, the power supply can be turned off, and persistent currents will flow for months, preserving the magnetic field. The advantage of this persistent mode is that stability of the magnetic field is better than is achievable with the best power supplies, and no energy is needed to power the windings. The short circuit is made by a 'persistent switch', a piece of superconductor inside the magnet connected across the winding ends, attached to a small heater. In normal mode, the switch wire is heated above its transition temperature, so it is resistive. Since the winding itself has no resistance, no current flows through the switch wire. To go to persistent mode, the current is adjusted until the desired magnetic field is obtained, then the heater is turned off. The persistent switch cools to its superconducting temperature, short circuiting the windings. Then the power supply can be turned off. The winding current, and the magnetic field, will not actually persist forever, but will decay slowly according to a normal inductive (L/R) time constant:
where is a small residual resistance in the superconducting windings due to joints or a phenomenon called flux motion resistance. Nearly all commercial superconducting magnets are equipped with persistent switches.
A quench is an abnormal termination of magnet operation that occurs when part of the superconducting coil enters the normal (resistive) state. This can occur because the field inside the magnet is too large, the rate of change of field is too large (causing eddy currents and resultant heating in the copper support matrix), or a combination of the two. More rarely a defect in the magnet can cause a quench. When this happens, that particular spot is subject to rapid Joule heating from the enormous current, which raises the temperature of the surrounding regions. This pushes those regions into the normal state as well, which leads to more heating in a chain reaction. The entire magnet rapidly becomes normal (this can take several seconds, depending on the size of the superconducting coil). This is accompanied by a loud bang as the energy in the magnetic field is converted to heat, and rapid boil-off of the cryogenic fluid. The abrupt decrease of current can result in kilovolt inductive voltage spikes and arcing. Permanent damage to the magnet is rare, but components can be damaged by localized heating, high voltages, or large mechanical forces. In practice, magnets usually have safety devices to stop or limit the current when the beginning of a quench is detected. If a large magnet undergoes a quench, the inert vapor formed by the evaporating cryogenic fluid can present a significant asphyxiation hazard to operators by displacing breathable air. A large section of the superconducting magnets in CERN's Large Hadron Collider unexpectedly quenched during start-up operations in 2008, necessitating the replacement of a number of magnets. In order to mitigate against potentially destructive quenches, the superconducting magnets that form the LHC are equipped with fast-ramping heaters which are activated once a quench event is detected by the complex quench protection system. As the dipole bending magnets are connected in series, each power circuit includes 154 individual magnets, and should a quench event occur, the entire combined stored energy of these magnets must be dumped at once. This energy is transferred into dumps that are massive blocks of metal which heat up to several hundreds of degrees Celsius due to the resistive heating in a matter of seconds. Although undesirable, a magnet quench is a "fairly routine event" during the operation of a particle accelerator.
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Although the idea of making electromagnets with superconducting wire was proposed by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes shortly after he discovered superconductivity in 1911, a practical superconducting electromagnet had to await the discovery of superconducting materials that could support large critical supercurrent densities in high magnetic fields. The first successful superconducting magnet was built by G.B. Yntema in 1955 using niobium wire and achieved a field of 0.7 T at 4.2 K. Then, in 1961, J.E. Kunzler, E. Buehler, F.S.L. Hsu, and J.H. Wernick made the startling discovery that a compound of niobium and tin could support critical-supercurrent densities greater than 100,000 amperes per square centimeter in magnetic fields of 8.8 tesla.  Despite its brittle nature, niobium-tin has since proved extremely useful in supermagnets generating magnetic fields up to 20 tesla.
In 1962, T.G. Berlincourt and R.R. Hake  discovered the high-critical-magnetic-field, high-critical-supercurrent-density properties of niobium-titanium alloys. Although niobium-titanium alloys possess less spectacular superconducting properties than niobium-tin, they are highly ductile, easily fabricated, and economical. Useful in supermagnets generating magnetic fields up to 10 tesla, niobium-titanium alloys are the most widely-used supermagnet materials.
In 1986, the discovery of high temperature superconductors by Georg Bednorz and Karl Müller energized the field, raising the possibility of magnets that could be cooled by liquid nitrogen instead of the more difficult to work with helium.
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.
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 GJ. 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?).[clarification needed] 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.
Global economic activity, for which superconductivity is indispensable, amounted to about five billion euros in 2014. <http://www.conectus.org/xxmarket.html> MRI systems, most of which employ niobium-titanium, accounted for about 80% of that total.
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