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Talking superconductivity with Professor Teresa Puig

Teresa-Puig std

Magnetic high-speed trains, inexhaustible fusion energy, nuclear magnetic resonance and imaging, supercomputers, marine motors and planes. Superconductivity can do all this and more. As the need for energy efficiency solutions is ever more pressing, we turn to superconductivity and its clear potential to transform the world we live in.

Prof. Teresa Puig (Institute of Materials Science in Barcelona – ICMAB, part of the Spanish National Research Council) is participating in NanoSC, a COST Action trying to build a better understanding of superconductivity, leading to new commercial devices and low cost materials. Her team is also leading EUROTAPES, a EU-funded project developing low cost high-temperature superconductors and enabling the vital technology transfer to European industry.

What is superconductivity and why does it matter so much?

Discovered 100 years ago, it is a quantum phenomenon enabling cables to transport electricity without losses, as opposed to traditional copper wires. In order to reach their superconductive state, cable materials need to be cooled at very low temperatures of below -250° Celsius. This creates magnetic swirls called vortices, central to the phenomenon. Understanding how vortices work  - vortex physics - is vital for using and developing superconductors.

A new type of superconducting materials was discovered at the time I was doing my physics degree. They are called high-temperature superconductors, because they can be cooled at a more feasible -180° Celsius. This was what triggered my interest in the field. 

Very specific applications – magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines in hospitals – are using low-temperature superconductors, but energy applications (wind turbines, cables, fault current limiters, magnetic energy storage machines) and very high magnetic field magnets could use with high-temperature ones. Super high-speed trains are another typical example of how superconductivity works:  they contain superconducting material pushing magnetic tracks away, which makes trains levitate. Energy loss is zero, which is why superconducting materials are the future for energy applications.

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Energy loss is zero, which is why superconducting materials are the future for energy applications.

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Why physics and – particularly – superconductivity?

I started studying physics at 19. I liked science and I wanted to learn more about the nature of things and what we could do to improve them. High-temperature superconductors were discovered during my university years, and that pushed me to go for a PhD degree in superconductivity. I worked in different labs across Europe - in Sweden, Ireland and Germany.  I continued with a post-doctoral Marie Curie fellowship at the University of Leuven in Belgium and another three-year post-doc in Spain. In 2000, I got my permanent position as a scientist working on superconductivity at ICMAB. I became a Professor in 2010 and since 2008, I’ve been heading up the Superconducting Materials and Nanostructures at Large Scale department at ICMAB. It is a group of 25 physicists, chemists, and materials science engineers, half of whom female. We are mainly working on superconductivity, using low cost methods to prepare materials for high-temperature superconductors, trying to get efficient growth processes and manipulate vortex physics properties in order to integrate these materials in superconducting devices.

So when did you find out about COST?

Nano-SC developed from an already operational ESF network also working on superconducting vortex physics. In fact, it was the network coordinator, Prof Victor Moshchalkov, (University of Leuven) who introduced me to the Action. I joined in from the very beginning, when it already summed up all groups in Europe working on vortex physics and superconductivity.

What is the Action aiming to achieve in practice?

The network is trying to reach a better understanding of superconducting nanomaterials to be able to improve these superconductors’ properties by manipulating vortex physics so they can be used in new electronic devices and new power applications. The recurring issue is that the cost of cooling such materials is still high, so we are trying to improve nanomaterials’ functionalities and find them new uses.  We have set up our Action's website to enhance and disseminate knowledge and results and help researchers meet up. It works like a virtual lab with all the equipment available in the network to promote experiments and scientific cooperation  - this is one way to decide which lab to go when you’re a young researcher.

As for activities, we have a one-week yearly summer school where students can show their work too. There are workshops throughout the year, and we encourage exchange visits between labs too. Such exchanges are the most important NanoSC activities.

You are also working on a roadmap for new materials and technologies as an alternative to US efforts.

There have been joint actions between Japan, the US and Europe – there has been a lot of knowledge sharing going on. The problem does not lie with device prototypes either, because superconducting cables and electrical machines produced worldwide have shown their utility. The roadmap focuses on showing that the cost/performance ratio is better than the existing technology. Costs are still high but we can have much more power, more efficient electricity systems, which lowers the cost of devices.

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Costs are still high but we can have much more power, more efficient electricity systems, which lowers the cost of devices.

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How does the network help transfer the technology to the European market?

We are trying to understand how materials work in order to have them perform better. We collaborate with various EU funded projects having industry involvement. European SMEs involved in such projects also benefit from the research we are doing in the COST Action. For instance, Prof. Xavier Obradors from our Barcelona group coordinates EUROTAPES, a large-scale action in superconductivity. It includes companies producing high-temperature superconducting materials in long length: Bruker, D-Nano and Theva. Also part of EUROTAPES, OXOLUTIA is our Barcelona research group spin-off, aiming to bring laboratory knowledge to market. Because today’s superconductors are still too fragile to manufacture in cables, thus limiting industry uptake, the spin-off is using a low cost ink-jet technique to “print” chemical solutions for materials. 

We all benefit from the networking activities going on. In a nutshell, the network is more about understanding the physical properties of superconducting materials, which, EUROTAPES helps develop.

What does an ideal future scenario look like? 

Despite being discovered more than 25 years ago, materials for high-temperature superconductors have yet to enter the market. It has taken a long time to build efficient materials, and for this we needed a better understanding of the vortex physics involved. By 2030, all our energy resources could be based on superconductivity and markets could be running at around €6.5bn a year. In 20 years, 50% of the electrical machinery in power applications could switch to superconductivity. These of course are positive market expectations. The performance is there, but the challenge is getting electricity companies on board - they have to make this change possible. The EU 2020 carbon goals need superconductivity to become reality. Companies building wind generators and aircraft producers are investigating superconducting motors for their next generation machines, since they are much lighter – a third in weight and half the volume. The field is clearly booming, but we need to convince the end users that this transformation can be done and that it’s worth it.

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The field is clearly booming, but we need to convince the end users that this transformation can be done and that it’s worth it.

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Are there any links between the COST Action and your newly funded ERC project?

The ERC grant is a result of my work over the past 25 years. Certainly, all projects and networks I have been involved in have helped. I proposed breakthroughs: for instance, a novel growth mechanism: a low cost, hundred times faster than existing methods at a very low cost, using ink jet printing additive manufacturing, and a new nano-engineering route for vortex pinning. Knowledge resulting from the COST Action will be used in the new growth process, while manipulating the superconducting electronic state in order to have the largest electric power transmission without losses ever achieved. The project is planning on manufacturing low cost, high-performance, high-temperature superconductors. Some members of my research group are also active in NanoSC and will take part in the ERC project.   

You also lead the Action’s gender balance group. What are your plans there?

In the beginning of the Action, we looked at the gender balance among staff members, postdoctoral students, PhDs and technicians in all participating countries. We tried to see if the women’s opportunities we were coming up with (talks at workshops, exchanges visits to other labs) were balancing participation. In 30 months, we have indeed increased Action’s gender balance from 20% to over 25%. The number of female PhDs and postdocs has also gone up – an area where the Action can do more. Female contribution already exceeds 40% in 6-8 participating countries.

A message for young female physicists in Europe?

Society is changing and we need to reach a better work-life balance. It’s not easy, but we need to strive for it since it’s also in our hands. They need to keep pushing and make it possible, because it is worth it. They should go for it.

They need to keep pushing and make it possible, because it is worth it. They should go for it

Source. http://www.cost.eu/media/cost_stories/superconductivity

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