What is a superconducting magnet?

What is a superconducting magnet? — JS, Montreal, Quebec

Electric currents are magnetic. That’s the basis for electromagnets—if you run an electric current around a coil of wire, that coil of wire will develop a north magnetic pole at one end and a south magnetic pole at the other end. But an electromagnet made with normal copper wires consumes electric power all the time. The current passing through those wires wastes energy because of friction-like effects in the copper and the wires become hot. The electromagnet also needs a power source to keep its current flowing.

However, a superconducting electromagnet is one in which the wires are superconducting—the current passing through them doesn’t waste any power. Once a current has been started in a coil of superconducting wire, it flows forever. Since it doesn’t waste any power, that current needs no source of power and produces no thermal energy. In fact, you can buy superconducting magnets with the current already started at the factory. As long as the wires are kept cold (as they must be to remain superconducting), the current will continue to flow and the coil will remain magnetic forever.

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