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Superconducting power cables breakthrough reached by Russian scientists and Italian firm
Columbus Superconductors began collaborating with the Russian scientific community in 2011 on a project to create a superconducting power cable, a highly efficient way of transmitting electricity with huge potential benefits. It was a story of technological innovation that has resonated in the scientific world and beyond. Moreover, it was a great opportunity for our companies and experts to grow and develop.
Our collaboration began with Vitaliy Vysotsky of the Russian Scientific R&D Cable Institute, a friend of Columbus Superconductors director general and researcher Gianni Grasso. But it also involved the Moscow Aviation System, the Institute of Nanotechnology and Microelectronics and the Russian Academy of Science, who came together to work on a new type of electric power cable.
On a trip to one of our plants in spring 2011, Vitaliy ordered several hundred meters of superconducting wire in a rectangular format. Of course we enthusiastically agreed to his request and to the scientific challenge it presented, and before long we had supplied the cable with the required specifications.
We later realized that the overarching project had huge significance, and that only part of it depended on our cable. I remember how anxious we were until one Sunday morning last winter when Dr Grasso forwarded me an email confirming the experiment had been successful. At that moment we shared the pride of the Russian scientific community in this major technological breakthrough.
The ensuing coverage in specialist publications and mainstream newspapers worldwide reflected the importance of our achievement. Superconductivity means electricity can be conducted without resistance, and therefore with extremely low losses. The implications for the future of energy are tremendous. But since superconductivity requires very low temperatures, it has not been possible to imagine harnessing this innovation on an industrial scale, until now.
The hybrid cable we helped produce enables superconducting material to be kept at the required low temperature, since the core Columbus wire - made from MgB2 Magnesium Diboride, a superconductor - is in turn cooled by liquid hydrogen which surrounds it.
Like all good stories, we are now waiting for the next challenge. We still have strong relations with our Russian collaborators and there could be a second attempt at the experiment with a test line of 30 meters instead of the original 10. This would be a new technical challenge even for us, as we would have to supply a different type of power cable, this time circular.
This is not our first contact with Russia and, moreover, our business relations with the region are not new: in 2008 we sold two of our steelworks to Metinvest. Today we are concentrating on the development of our businesses activity in the hi-tech superconductor sector, a technology that was discovered 100 years ago but which can still be considered the frontier of technological progress. We are preparing to make developments not only in the world of research and nuclear fusion but also in energy storage and transmission.
Columbus’ MgB2 superconducting cable currently has few equals in the world, according to the feedback we’ve received from the scientific and research community. In the future this material will have a number of uses related to transferring and storing energy, ensuring we can respond to industry’s ever more pressing demands.
In this framework our collaboration with the Russian scientific community represents an important chapter in our history. It is also the story of an innovation challenge. But, above all, it is a virtuous example of collaboration between Russia and Italy on an extremely timely topic. Type “hybrid superconducting cable” into a search engine and you’ll find a plethora of statements and articles dedicated to this discovery. Innovative businesses will always need countries at the cutting edge of technology and experimentation and that is what Columbus Superconductors is finding in Russia.