Skip to main content

Years After the Hype, Superconductors Ready to Deliver the Goods

This is part 2 of a column on superconductivity.

Power Player

Another player in the superconductor field is

American Superconductor

(AMSC) - Get American Superconductor Corporation Report

, which designs and manufactures superconductive high-power density wires, power electronic modules and electricity storage systems aimed at a $15-$20 billion annual market. Its goal is to revolutionize the way we use power. "Disruptive technology" guru,


professor Clayton Christensen, is on its board of directors.

The company's core product -- silver-sheathed, powder-in-tube, multifilamentary composite HTS wire -- can carry 100 times the electrical current of similar-sized copper wiring. Through a complex process of bundling, extrusion, rolling and sintering, wire can be fashioned into high-capacity power cables and HTS coils for motors and generators. With wire being the foundation of all electrical gear, such power densities can dramatically increase the capacity and reliability of power delivery networks, ease the burden of installing new cables and shrink the size, weight, manufacturing cost and operating expense of generators and motors. (Note: Intermagnetics, too, is developing its own HTS wire.)

American Superconductor appears to be nearing a strategic inflection point: Its access to 250 patents and manufacturing expertise is starting to produce wire for a broad range of applications. Strategic partner

Pirelli Cables & Systems

, for instance, is set to finish installing the world's first HTS cables in a utility network in a

Detroit Edison

substation next year, using 18 miles of American Superconductor's wire.

Targeting the power quality and reliability markets, American Superconductor's superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) products should drive sales next year. SMES products store vast amounts of electrical power -- more than 3 million watts -- in coils of superconducting niobium-titanium (NbTi) wire, ready to be discharged in the event of a voltage sag on the power grid, caused for example, by lightning strikes or equipment failure.

Acting as "virtual generators," the company's mobile Distributed SMES (D-SMES), like the seven already delivered to

Wisconsin Public Service

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

, are deployed in trailers at key points throughout the grid, quickly and economically increasing its reliability. Power Quality SMES (PQ-SMES) is intended for use by large manufacturers whose continuous operations can be severely disrupted by even a brief voltage sag. American Superconductor recently announced a major co-branding marketing and sales alliance of its SMES products with

General Electric's

(GE) - Get General Electric Company Report

GE Industrial Systems


HTS wire may soon be applied to the mature electrical motor industry as well. Motors convert electrical energy into mechanical energy using strong magnetic forces. Large, bulky industrial motors, those with power ratings of 1,000 horsepower or more, consume 25% of America's generated electricity. Using American Superconductor's HTS windings in place of conventional copper coils can cut motor size, weight and manufacturing costs by up to 40%. They're intended for use in large process industries like steel mills, pulp and paper, chemical and oil refining.

Likewise, generators that convert rotational mechanical input energy (from a steam or gas turbine) into electricity are another enormous opportunity. General Electric estimates worldwide demand for superconducting generators in the next 10 years to be $20 billion to $30 billion.

American Semiconductor's management believes its SMES division will break even early in 2001 and the company should reach overall profitability in 2002. A 350,000 square-foot plant will open that year, capable of producing 10 million meters of HTS wire.

Breakout Application: Wireless

If MRIs were LTS' first widespread commercial success, then wireless communications base station filters and amplifiers, like those made by

Superconductor Technologies

(SCON) - Get Superconductor Technologies, Inc. Report

, are HTS' breakout products.

Depositing a thin film coating (only 50 microns thick) of TBCCO (thallium, barium, calcium, copper and oxygen) superconductor on a filter's resonator elements allows radio frequency energy to pass through with an extremely high rejection rate of undesirable signals, while all but eliminating noise. Such high "Q-factor" filters reduce the number of dropped calls, increase a base station's capacity and range, improve voice and data quality of service and extend customers' minutes of use and handset battery life. In all, Superconductor Technologies' filtering products hold a commanding 79% market share in its niche.


Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association

projects more than 1 million base stations will be installed worldwide by 2003 to provide wireless telephony and Internet access.

Wireless Design Online

puts the number of wireless subscribers at 1.26 billion by 2006. Superconducting filters are seen as a key enabling technology to continue this buildout.

With customers like

United States Cellular

(USM) - Get United States Cellular Corp Report



(AT) - Get Atlantic Power Corporation Report

, Superconductor Technologies is making the transition from the lab bench to the factory floor: Even as its government contracts declined, commercial product revenues recently leaped fivefold.

So what of the future? Japan is pressing ahead with its frictionless Yamanashi maglev trains.

Irvine Sensors


received a $1 million contract to research superconducting digital routers for high-speed data. (Superconducting niobium-nitride is capable of detecting a single photon, and can recognize changes in fiber-optic signals operating at 25 gigahertz.)

And then there are Type 2 superconductors, whose ability to function at even higher temperatures remains unexplained. These include cuprate perovskites (crystalline ceramics which include copper) and organics like Cs3C60 Buckyballs (shaped like soccer balls and named for the late Buckminster Fuller) that may be used to speed blindingly fast petaflop computers. To keep an eye on this important field, check out

James Brookes-Avey is chief investment officer of, a Scottsdale, Ariz.- based investment advisory; contributing editor to Technology Investor, and subadvisor to's managed stock accounts. At the time of publication his firm had a long position in American Superconductor, though positions can change at any time.

Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Brookes-Avey's writings provide insight into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice, he invites your feedback at