A useful superconducting conductor must have several properties. Some of the key properties among these are illustrated by the cross section of a Nb-47wt%Ti/Cu composite (Figure 1) which was manufactured for the dipole magnets of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). It represents the state of the art for conventional conductor fabrication and is thus an excellent place to start in considering what is needed for any new conductor. First among the essential properties is a high critical current density (Jc); the lower limit of useful Jc is ~104 A/cm2, but really useful values lie between 105 and 106 A/cm2. The SSC conductor achieves this at fields up to 9 T at 4.2 K, the normal temperature used for magnets cooled by liquid helium.
A critical second requirement is that the superconductor be paralleled by an intimately connected good normal conductor, in this case high-conductivity Cu. One function of the Cu is to stabilize the superconductor against small temperature disturbances that lead to flux jumps that could result in local quenching of superconductivity. This requirement forces the subdivision of a given cross section of the superconductor into many filaments having a maximum diameter of no more than about 50 μm, since bigger filaments store more electromagnetic energy than can safely be deposited in the filament without locally heating it above its critical temperature (Tc). One advantage of high-temperature superconducting (HTS) materials is that they can operate at temperatures above ~10 K. Since the specific heat is a strongly increasing function at low temperatures, this permits the safe filament size to greatly increase too. The need to minimize hysteresis losses, however, often provides a separate drive to minimize the filament diameter, as in the conductor of Figure 1, where there are some 7,000 filaments which are only 6 μm in diameter. The overall Cu:Nb-Ti ratio is about 1.5:1. This represents a compromise between the need to minimize the dilution of the supercurrent density by Cu and the need to provide sufficient high-conductivity normal metal to pass the current when the magnet makes the transition from the superconducting to the normal state (a quench).