An Irish startup is partnering with CERN to develop a new form of insulation for superconducting cables, designed to accelerate the green energy transition.
called SuperNode, the company invented power transmission cables that can transmit enormous power over long distances. Because the system needs less space and voltage than conventional copper-based cables, the impact on the environment is reduced.
These benefits come from superconductivity. This phenomenon occurs when certain materials are cooled below their critical temperature – usually -180°C for high-temperature superconductors. This allows superconductors a substantial power density and zero electrical losses.
To harness this potential, SuperNode needs unique scientific resources – which is where CERN comes in.
“In its research, CERN is pushing the frontier of superconductivity to reach record energy levels and operating one of the largest vacuum systems in the world,” CERN’s Paolo Chiggiato said in a statement.
“Especially to avoid collisions with residual gas molecules in the accelerators, we need to reach extreme vacuum levels. Vacuum is also used at CERN as a thermal insulator for our superconducting magnets. We believe that this know-how can be successfully applied to evaluate the technological solutions proposed to insulate the superconducting cables developed by SuperNode.”
To test the technology, CERN will subject candidate materials to temperatures, pressures and environments that mimic the conditions encountered by the cables. CERN will also design and develop a new test rig to validate prototypes at scale. Ultimately, the installation will be installed at SuperNode’s headquarters in Dublin, the European Cryogenic Center for Superconductors.
The partnership with CERN caps off a busy month for SuperNode. Last week, the company announced that shareholders Aker Horizons and Dr. Eddie O’Connor had pledged an additional €16 million for the development of the technology. The new funding followed an earlier cash injection of €14 million last year.
SuperNode CEO John Fitzgerald believes adding CERN to the mix will provide a further boost.
“To meet the increasing demand for electricity, future transmission grids will need to reliably transport bulk electricity over distances of hundreds of kilometers – connecting consumption nodes to production areas, which are often far away,” he said.
“We believe that by working together we can find innovative solutions to improve the world’s energy infrastructure. Without new grid technology, we cannot integrate the level of renewable energy that governments around the world have been aiming for and we will not achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
The collaboration also comes at a historic moment for CERN. The lab has just taken the first steps towards building a 91 km long particle accelerator. The new system would more than triple the length of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – currently the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator – which will complete its mission around 2040.
The plans were unveiled amid growing competition for Europe’s leading position in the field.
Its most notable rival is China, too plans to build the world’s largest particle accelerator. Malika Meddahi of CERN told AFP last week that “China shows the same ambition” as Europe.
“Let’s be vigilant and make sure we’re not about to experience a change in this hierarchy,” she said.
Some concern has also been raised about the huge cost of the new accelerator. Critics fear that investment in fundamental science would be better spent in applied sciences. But the collaboration with SuperNode is further proof that CERN’s work can lead to practical applications.