A recently discovered superconductor, magnesium diboride (MgB2), can be used to fabricate conducting leads used in cryogenic applications. Discovered to be superconducting in 2001, MgB2 has the advantage of remaining superconducting at higher temperatures than the previously used material, NbTi. The purpose of these leads is to provide 2 A of electricity to motors located in a 1.3 K environment. The providing environment is a relatively warm 17 K. Requirements for these leads are to survive temperature fluctuations in the 5 K and 11 K heat sinks, and not conduct excessive heat into the 1.3 K environment. Test data showed that each lead in the assembly could conduct 5 A at 4 K, which, when scaled to 17 K, still provided more than the required 2 A.
The lead assembly consists of 12 steelclad MgB2 wires, a tensioned Kevlar support, a thermal heat sink interface at 4 K, and base plates. The wires are soldered to heavy copper leads at the 17 K end, and to thin copper-clad NbTi leads at the 1.3 K end. The leads were designed, fabricated, and tested at the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe - Institut für Technische Physik before inclusion in Goddard’s XRS (X-Ray Spectrometer) instrument onboard the Astro-E2 spacecraft.
A key factor is that MgB2 remains superconducting up to 30 K, which means that it does not introduce joule heating as a resistive wire would. Because the required temperature ranges are 1.3–17 K, this provides a large margin of safety. Previous designs lost superconductivity at around 8 K. The disadvantage to MgB2 is that it is a brittle ceramic, and making thin wires from it is challenging. The solution was to encase the leads in thin steel tubes for strength. Previous designs were so brittle as to risk instrument survival.
MgB2 leads can be used in any cryogenic application where small currents need to be conducted at below 30 K. Because previous designs would superconduct only at up to 8 K, this new design would be ideal for the 8–30 K range.
This work was done by John Panek of Goddard Space Flight Center. For further information, contact the Goddard Innovative Partnerships Office at (301) 286-5810. GSC-15657-1