Adiabatic demagnetization refrigerators (ADR) are operated in space to cool detectors of cosmic radiation to a few 10s of mK. A key element of the ADR is a superconducting magnet operating at about 0.3 K that is continually energized and de-energized in synchronism with a thermal switch, such that a piece of paramagnetic salt is alternately warm in a high magnetic field and cold in zero magnetic field. This causes the salt pill or refrigerant to cool, and it is able to suck heat from an object, e.g., the sensor, to be cooled. Current has to be fed into and out of the magnets from a dissipative power supply at the ambient temperature of the spacecraft. The current leads that link the magnets to the power supply inevitably conduct a significant amount of heat into the colder regions of the supporting cryostat, resulting in the need for larger, heavier, and more powerful supporting refrigerators. The aim of this project was to design and construct high-temperature superconductor (HTS) leads from YBCO (yttrium barium copper oxide) composite conductors to reduce the heat load significantly in the temperature regime below the critical temperature of YBCO.

The magnet lead does not have to support current in the event that the YBCO ceases to be superconducting. Customarily, a normal metal conductor in parallel with the YBCO is a necessary part of the lead structure to allow for this upset condition; however, for this application, the normal metal can be dispensed with.

Amorphous silicon dioxide is deposited directly onto the surface of YBCO, which resides on a flexible substrate. The silicon dioxide protects the YBCO from chemically reacting with atmospheric water and carbon dioxide, thus preserving the superconducting properties of the YBCO. The customary protective coating for flexible YBCO conductors is silver or a silver/gold alloy, which conducts heat many orders of magnitude better than SiO2 and so limits the use of such a composite conductor for passing current across a thermal gradient with as little flow of heat as possible to make an efficient current lead. By protecting YBCO on a flexible substrate of low thermal conductivity with SiO2, a thermally efficient and flexible current lead can be fabricated. The technology is also applicable to current leads for 4 K superconducting electronics current biasing.

A commercially available thin-film YBCO composite tape conductor is first stripped of its protective silver coating. It is then mounted on a jig that holds the sample flat and acts as a heat sink. Silicon dioxide is then deposited onto the YBCO to a thickness of about 1 micron using PECVD (plasmaenhanced chemical vapor deposition), without heating the YBCO to the point where degradation occurs.

Since SiO2 can have good high-frequency electrical properties, it can be used to coat YBCO cable structures used to feed RF signals across temperature gradients. The prime embodiment concerns the conduction of DC current across the cryogenic temperature gradient. The coating is hard and electrically insulating, but flexible.

This work was done by Daniel Johannes and Robert Webber of Hypes for Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-16732-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the October, 2013 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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