Half-meter-long prototype of a niobium-tin superconducting undulator magnet.

Powerful magnet could allow a closer look inside cleantech materials

The average person probably doesn’t think much about magnets beyond using them to hang stuff on the refrigerator. But magnets play major roles in scientific endeavors, especially in cleaner energy production. 

Scientists from three U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories — Argonne and Fermi in Illinois and Lawrence Berkeley in California — designed, built, and fully tested a huge magnet prototype that helps create powerful X-rays to peer inside materials. When scientists can see inside materials at a molecular level, they can identify areas for improvement and figure out ways to make the materials better. This includes materials for making clean energy technologies. 

“Any time you’re trying to move into a new technology, you typically need new, specialized materials,” said Jonathan Lang, director of the X-ray Science Division at Argonne. “We have a Swiss Army knife here that can attack a variety of problems.”

One use for the X-rays is to see inside lithium-ion batteries to identify flaws that cause fires or problems with charging. Other applications include figuring out how to get jet engines to operate more efficiently and create less pollution, devising better materials for hydrogen fuel cells, and creating high-strength magnets and batteries for use in wind turbines.

The advancement

The scientists created a prototype of what is called a superconducting undulator magnet to be installed at an Argonne light research facility that generates the high-power X-ray beams to look inside materials. “This device we’re developing helps us make more intense beams at higher energies,” Lang said.

The X-ray beams themselves focus to about the size of a cross-section of human hair, or even smaller. “The X-rays tell you about the atomic structure of the material” under examination, Lang said. “These are particularly for high energies.”

Beyond developing clean energy technologies, scientists “do all kinds of research with this, including finding structures of proteins to design drugs, looking at ways to treat COVID and other diseases — we look at imaging of cells to try to come up with cancer treatments,” Lang said.

Scientists have been working for years to get higher-energy beams out of smaller devices to save both space and money. The national lab research team advanced those goals with their state-of-the-art magnet. Reducing the size of the device could save tens of millions of dollars. 

  • The magnet project centered on developing an alloy from the elements niobium and tin. The material does not offer resistance to current running through it, even while generating high magnetic fields. 
  • The few superconducting magnets already in place at Argonne’s facility tend to be made from a nobium-titanium alloy. Although the tin alloy is a more complicated material, it can carry two to three times the current of the titanium alloy.
  • The full-sized prototype magnet should be finished next year. The research team plans to install it in the Advanced Photon Source facility. The longer-term goal is to collaborate with industrial partners for manufacturing these devices.

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