Superconductivity is a phenomenon which occurs in certain materials and is characterized by the absence of electrical resistivity. Until recently, this phenomenon had been restricted to metals and alloys with transition temperatures of less than 23K. In 1986, superconductivity was discovered in a ceramic material. This precipitated an onrush of ceramic based superconductors with transition temperatures as high as 120K. The ceramic-based materials are commonly known as high temperature (HTc) superconductors while the metallic and alloy materials are called low temperature (LTc) superconductors. Currently, only low temperature superconductors are of interest to the magnet designer and manufacturer.

Superconductors are divided into two types depending on their characteristic behavior in the presence of a magnetic field. Type I superconductors are comprised of pure metals, whereas Type II superconductors are comprised primarily of alloys or intermetallic compounds. Both, however, have one common feature: below a critical temperature, Tc, their resistance vanishes.

The critical temperature at which the resistance vanishes in a superconductor is reduced when a magnetic field is applied. The maximum field that can be applied to a superconductor at a particular temperature and still maintain superconductivity is call the critical field, or Hc. This field varies enormously between Type I and Type II superconductors. The maximum critical field (Hc) in any Type I superconductor is about 2000 Gauss (0.2 Tesla), but in Type II materials superconductivity can persist to several hundred thousand Gauss (Hc2). At fields greater than Hc in a Type I superconductor and greater than Hc2 in a Type II superconductor, the conductor reverts to the normal state and regains its normal state resistance.

A Type I superconductor excludes the applied magnetic field from the center of the sample by establishing circulating currents on its surface that counteract the applied field. Type II superconductors, however, permit the field to penetrate through the sample in quantized amounts of flux. These quanta are comprised of circulating vortices of current and the flux contained in the vortices. The total flux in a vortex is 2 x 10-7 Gauss-cm2. Great numbers of these vortices, or fluxoids as they are frequently called, can exist in a superconductor. For example, at a field intensity of 80 kilogauss (8 Tesla) there are 4 x 1011 fluxoids/cm2. These fluxoids and their interactions with defects in the superconductor give rise to the high current carrying capabilities of superconducting magnets.

Flux Pinning and Flux Flow

Properties of superconducting materials are altered locally by the presence of defects in the materials. A fluxoid encompassing or adjacent to such a defect in the material has its energy altered and its free motion through the superconductor is inhibited. This phenomenon, known as flux pinning, causes a field gradient in the superconductor and gives rise to a net current in the material. In the absence of defects in a Type II superconductor, no bulk current can be conducted without a transition into the normally conducting resistive state.

Since the pinning force is small, fluxoids can be broken loose from their pinning centers, resulting in a net creep of the flux through a conductor as a function of time. This results in an effective voltage in a Type II superconductor. If the current density is low and the magnetic field is not intense, flux creep is insignificant and the induced voltage and effective resistance of the conductor will be essentially zero. At very high fields and high current densities, fluxoids will migrate rapidly, giving rise to a phenomenon called flux flow.

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