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Cryogenics 45 (2005) 109115

Investigation into the use of solid nitrogen to create a

Thermal Battery for cooling a portable
high-temperature superconducting magnet
P. Hales


, H. Jones a, S. Milward b, S. Harrison

Department of Physics, University of Oxford, Clarendon Laboratory, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PU, UK
Space Cryomagnetics Ltd, Building E1, Culham Science Centre, Culham, Abingdon OX14 3DB, UK
Received 15 September 2003; received in revised form 27 January 2004; accepted 26 April 2004

The design of a portable, stand-alone cooling system, for use with a high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnet, is discussed. The HTS magnet is used to propel a magnetohydrodynamically powered model boat (approximately 120 cm 60 cm). The
aim of this investigation was to establish the suitability of solid nitrogen for use in the stand-alone cooling system, and determine the
optimum method for exploiting its cooling power. It was found that obtaining good thermal contact between solid nitrogen and its
container is very dicult if the nitrogen is frozen under vacuum, due to the formation of a thermal barrier between the nitrogen and
its container. This problem is overcome if the nitrogen is frozen via conduction cooling from cold helium gas (at 4.2 K); and the
design for a near isothermal thermal battery based on this principle is presented. This thermal battery has been constructed and
integrated into the HTS magnet system onboard the model boat, and the results from the rst trials of this system are presented here.
 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: High Tc superconductors (A); Nitrogen (B); MHD magnets (F)

1. Introduction
As developments in the eld of superconductivity
continue, the number of potential applications for
superconducting magnets is increasing rapidly. Traditionally, these magnets are constructed from low-temperature superconducting (LTS) wire, such as Nb3Ti,
and cooled using liquid helium baths. However, as these
magnets generally have a critical temperature of less
than 10 K (just a few Kelvin above the operating temperature), they have always been susceptible to premature
quenches. These are often triggered by small amounts
of energy released in tiny movements of the wire or
cracks in the resin surrounding the magnetspecic
heat capacities are so low at these temperatures that

Corresponding author. Fax: +44 0 1865 282635.

E-mail address: (P. Hales).

0011-2275/$ - see front matter  2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

such a small amount of energy can quench the whole

magnet. This problem was potentially overcome with
the advent of high temperature superconductivity
materials such as silver sheathed Bismuthstrontium
calciumcopper oxide (BSCCO-2223) have critical
temperatures of 110 K and above, and so can easily be
cooled using liquid nitrogen. Not only is the operating
temperature generally well below the critical temperature, but specic heat capacities of the matrix metals
used in these wires are generally several orders of magnitude higher at 77 K compared to 4.2 K, so quenches
are much less likely.
Many applications for HTS magnets these days require operation at temperatures lower than that of liquid nitrogenas the current carrying capability of the
wire increases as we lower the operating temperature.
There are two ways of achieving thiseither by using
a cryocooler, or using a cryogen. Provided the magnet


P. Hales et al. / Cryogenics 45 (2005) 109115

can easily be conduction cooled from the cold head of a

cryocooler, and the eect of vibrations from the cryocooler can be accomodated, cryogen-free operation is
usually relatively straightforward. However, it is
sometimes the case that the magnet must be run in
stand-alone mode, in which access to a power supply
to continually run the cryocooler is not available. For
instance, superconducting magnets have started to be
used in mine countermeasures [1], an application in
which portability and thermal stability are paramount.
This is also the case for the magnet being designed
jointly by the Magnet Group at Oxford University
and Space Cryomagnetics Ltd to propel an MHD-driven model boat, which must be operated without access
to mains power. The magnet itself consists of six pancake coils of BSCCO-2223, and will be powered using
sealed lead acid cells. The cooling for the magnet will
be provided by a thermal battery onboard the boat,
and it is the design of this thermal battery which is presented here.

This left us with the option of an alternative cryogen

in solid form. Of these, nitrogen seems to be the best
choice. First, it is by far the most easily available, and
hence the unit cost is almost negligible in comparison
with many other cryogens. It also has a higher SHC
(per unit mass, in solid and liquid form) than other common cryogens such as neon, argon and oxygen. Third,
although liquid nitrogen freezes at 63.2 K, at 35.6 K
solid nitrogen goes through a solidsolid phase transition [2], so provided it can initially be cooled below this
point, the latent heat of this transition increases solid
nitrogens ability to absorb heat.
It was decided therefore that the thermal battery
should be cooled to 30 K using frozen nitrogen, and
the magnet should be operated between 30 K and
63.2 K (the freezing point of nitrogen). Having set these
parameters, we then went on to investigate the suitability of solid nitrogen as means for absorbing heat over
this temperature range.
2.1. Thermal battery model

2. Choice of cryogen
A number of factors come into play when chosing the
optimum cryogen to use for this thermal battery. The
HTS wire has a critical temperature of 115 K; however,
the wire is capable of increased performance, in a given
magnetic eld, as we lower the operating temperature.
To achieve a useful eld from our magnet, we needed
to cool the wire to at least 77 K, and keep at or below
this temperature for a period of approximately 2 h. This
left us with two optionseither we base our design on
cryogens with a boiling point below 77 K, or we could
freeze a cryogen to the required temperature.
Cooling using purely a liquid cryogen (i.e. without
freezing) would require the use of liquid helium, hydrogen or neon. Of these, hydrogen has the highest specic
heat capacity (SHC) per unit mass, and neon has the
highest SHC per unit volume. However, hydrogen has
the disadvantage of being potentially hazardous to use,
and it would have been dicult to ensure its safe deployment within the scale of this project. Neon is comparatively safe to use, but in terms of unit cost is very
expensive (over 40 times greater than liquid helium,
and 500 times greater than liquid nitrogen). This eectively ruled neon out for of this project as well, leaving
liquid helium as the only easily available liquid cryogen.
However, a thermal battery based on liquid helium cooling would have been inecient in our project. The maximum operating temperature would have been 4.2 K (the
boiling point of liquid helium)and although we would
have been able to run much higher currents through our
magnet at these temperatures, these high currents would
be too ambitious for the onboard batteries in a project
of this scale.

The magnet used in the MHD boat is conduction

cooled via its copper former, which is connected to the
onboard thermal battery via a cold nger. In this investigation, the thermal battery was initially modelled as a
cylindrical pot (length = 290 mm, OD = 127 mm), with a
copper base and top plate (12 mm thick), and a brass
tube forming the sides of the pot (1.7 mm thick). Attached to the top was a long (670 mm) stainless steel
tube (25.4 mm OD), through which liquid nitrogen could
be poured into the vessel.
The aim of this part of the investigation was to determine the optimum method of freezing liquid nitrogen, so
that it is in good thermal contact with the copper base of
the vesselas this will be the point that the cold nger
connects to.

3. Freezing liquid nitrogen under vacuum

One common method of lowering the temperature of
a cryogen is to pump on iti.e. to reduce its pressure
and therefore temperature. In order to freeze nitrogen
using this method, the experimental set up, as illustrated
in Fig. 1, was created.
The nitrogen vessel was insulated with 4 cm of polystyrene wrapped around the sides and ends of the pot, and
then placed in an open-top, vacuum-walled stainless steel
bucket (ID = 355 mm). The space between the walls of
the bucket and the nitrogen vessel was lled with vermiculite (hydrated magnesium aluminium silicate) to minimise convection around the vessel. The measured heat
input to the vessel, after initial cool-down, was 22 W.
In order to measure the temperatures inside the vessel,
two Pt-100 platinum temperature sensors were mounted

P. Hales et al. / Cryogenics 45 (2005) 109115

3.1. Experimental results and discussion

N2 in, and connection

to vacuum pump

stainless steel neck

nitrogen vessel
Vacuum walled


glass fibre



4cm polystyrene


Fig. 1. Schematic of the nitrogen vessel, surrounded by polystyrene

and vermiculite insulation. marks the position of temperature
sensors T1, T2 and T3.

on a glass-bre rod, which was lowered down the neck of

the vessel. When in position, the lower sensor (T1) is
10 mm above the copper base of the vessel, and the upper
sensor (T2) is 60 mm above the base. A further Pt-100
(T3) was mounted on the outside of the vessel, on the
underside of the copper base. Three litres of liquid nitrogen were then added to the vessel, after which a vacuum
pump was tted to the end of the stainless steel tube
mounted on top of the vessel. The vessel was then
pumped-down for a period of 12 min, bringing the internal pressure to less than 1 mbar. After 12 min pumping
was stopped, and the vessel left to self-pressurise for a
further 18 min. The readings from temperature sensors
T1, T2 and T3 were recorded throughout the whole process, and are illustrated in Fig. 2.

The temperature traces for sensors T1 and T2, which

were both immersed in the nitrogen, show the behaviour
one would expect. Once pumping began, the temperature drops to 63 K, at which point we observe a plateau as the nitrogen changes state. Following this, the
temperature of the nitrogen continues to fall to 53 K,
at which point the pumping is stopped and the vessel
is left to self pressurise. During this period, the nitrogen
warms back to 63 K, and then melts.
However, the trace from sensor T3, mounted on the
copper base of the vessel, only shows a fall in temperature up until the point at which the nitrogen freezes. Following this, a thermal barrier seems to form between the
nitrogen the base of the vessel, which results in the base
temperature rising while the nitrogen above it is still
cooling down. It is only when the solid nitrogen had
warmed and melted (after pumping was stopped) that
the thermal barrier seemed to disappear, and the base
temperature rapidly dropped back down to the temperature of the nitrogen just above it (at approximately
65 K). These observations were consistent over six tests.
In order to explain this strange behaviour, a visual
observation of the freezing process was made, by freezing the nitrogen under vacuum in a glass dewar. By
doing this, we were able to observe the liquid nitrogen
freezing to form a very sparse solid, which looks a little
like cotton wool. It is easy to see how solid nitrogen of
this consistency would make very poor thermal contact
with any nearby surfaces, and how a vacuum gap could
easily form between the two, creating the aforementioned thermal barrier.
In order to try and increase the chances of thermal
contact between the vessel and the solid nitrogen held
within it, a set of ve copper baes, running through


Temp. (K)

T1 (K)
T2 (K)
Tbase (K)







Time (min)

Fig. 2. The cool-down and warm-up of the nitrogen and the copper base of the nitrogen vessel, when cooled by pumping. The vacuum pump was
turned o after 12 min, following which the vessel was allowed to self-pressurise.


P. Hales et al. / Cryogenics 45 (2005) 109115

the internal volume of the vessel, were soldered to the

copper base. However, despite this signicant increase
in available surface area for heat exchange, exactly the
same trends in the temperature traces were observed.
It would appear that achieving good thermal contact
with solid nitrogen, which has been frozen under vacuum, is extremely dicult, and if we want to exploit
its cooling power we must freeze it in a dierent manner.

helium siphon

Brass plug
exhaust tube

4. Freezing nitrogen with liquid helium

6F45 plate

Another way to freeze nitrogen is via conduction

cooling. Liquid helium evaporates at 4.2 K, and this cold
gas can be run through a helix which is surrounded by
liquid nitrogen. In this manner we can freeze the nitrogen around the helix, and eventually throughout the
whole vessel.


4.1. Experimental method

helium coil

To investigate this a length of copper tube (4 mm OD,

2 mm ID) was bent into a helix, and added to the nitrogen vessel as illustrated in Fig. 3.
The nitrogen vessel was wrapped in ve layers of
superinsulation, and contained two platinum temperature sensorsone 2 cm o the copper base (T1) and
the other 11.5 cm up (T2). A third sensor was mounted
on the underside of the copper base, on the outside of
the vessel (Tbase). The helium helix was placed inside
the nitrogen vessel, which was then suspended within
the dewar. A helium siphon was passed down the neck
of the vessel, and a helium exhaust line ran back up
the neck to a gas-ow meter.
The inner space of the dewar was evacuated using a
rotary vacuum pump, and the vacuum jacket was evacuated using a turbo-molecular pump. It was decided
that the nitrogen jacket would not be used, in order to

copper base

Fig. 3. Schematic of the test thermal battery, with the helium coil.

simulate the conditions of the nal model more

Once the vessel had been pre-cooled, 3 l of liquid
nitrogen were added. Cold helium gas was then transferred through the helix, and the temperatures of both
the nitrogen in the vessel and the copper base were
logged. Once the temperatures stopped falling, the helium was stopped, and the warming trend was observed.
The cooling and warming of the nitrogen (as measured by the lower temperature sensor in the vessel, T1)
and the copper base temperature (Tbase) are shown in
Fig. 4.


Temp (K)


T base (K)
T2 (K)





Time (hours)




Fig. 4. The cool-down and warm-up of the nitrogen and copper base of the nitrogen vessel, when cooled using cold helium gas. The helium gas was
stopped after 4 h.

P. Hales et al. / Cryogenics 45 (2005) 109115

4.2. Discussion
The rst point to note is that the copper base has
been cooled to 30 K, so we can be sure that no thermal
barrier exists between solid nitrogen and copper when
cooled using conduction cooling from a helium coil. A
copper bar could connect the nitrogen vessel base to
the copper former, and the magnet will be conduction
cooled to very low temperatures.
However, this experiment has highlighted the need to
minimise the heat leak into the system. Cooling the
nitrogen down to 30 K took four hours, and required
approximately 80 l of liquid helium. This large quantity
of helium was needed as the heat leak was so high (primarily due to radiation, as explained below). Once the
minimum temperature had been reached, the warm-up
was much quicker than anticipated, taking only 2 h to
rise the 33 K back up to the melting point. A similar
experiment has been performed at the Francis Bitter
Magnet Lab [2]. Here, 1.5 kg of solid nitrogen was
cooled in a similar method, but reached 10 K after just
2.5 h of cooling. After disconnecting the He, the temperature rise from 20 to 40 K took 24 h [3].
The reason for the fast rise time in our experiment was
due to a high heat load. The heat leak in the experiments
mentioned in [2] was just 550 mW. The two signicant
sources of heat leak to our vessel were conduction cooling down the feedthrough tubes to the vessel (0.75 W),
and radiation from the walls of the dewar. The later actually represents a huge heat leak to the system (15.4 W)
despite the use of 5 layers of superinsulation. Had this
been reduced, for instance by using the nitrogen jacket
in the dewar, we could have cooled the nitrogen much
faster, and used far less liquid helium.
5. Development of the nal thermal battery
The previous experiment had shown that conduction
cooling with cold helium gas eliminates the thermal barrier between the copper and solid nitrogen. It also highlighted the fact that solid nitrogen has a very poor
thermal conductivity, as during cool-down and warmup there was a signicant dierence between the copper
base temperature and the temperature of the solid nitrogen just 10 mm above it (see Fig. 4). In fact the value of
the thermal conductivity of solid nitrogen at 55 K is just
0.20 W/m K [4]which is similar to the conductivity of
wood at room temperature. Therefore, the design of
the thermal battery must not include large distances between solid nitrogen and the heat exchanger.
With this in mind, the vessel to house the solid nitrogen can be designed around some set parameters. First,
it was decided that the vessel should hold 3 l of liquid
nitrogen before freezing. A thermal analysis of the whole
magnet system predicted that the total heat input would
be 11.1 W. We clearly need some way of spreading both


the cooling from the cold helium gas, and the heating
from the magnet during operation, evenly around the
volume of nitrogen. To do this, it was decided to add
a set of copper baes to the inside of the vessel, with
the baes connected to a central copper post, which is
actually the end of the cold nger (connecting the thermal battery to the magnet). The crucial factor for even
heat distribution is the spacing of these baes. If we
set a criteria that the temperature variation throughout
the vessel must be no greater than 1 K, the spacing of the
baes can be determined using a one dimensional analysis of the thermal conduction:
1. The basic heat conduction equation is
KAt dT

We know that Q = 11.1 W, K = 0.20 W/m K and

dT = 1 K. At represents the total surface area in contact with the solid nitrogen, and Lc represents the
characteristic lengththe distance away from the
copper (the source of heat) and into the solid nitrogen
at which the temperature has changed by 1 K. We
know that Lc should be the distance of the mid-point
between two baesit is the furthest distance any
volume of SN should be from a baeand therefore
the spacing between the baes should be 2Lc.
2. To nd Lc, we need to eliminate At from Eq. (1). We
can do this as we know that the total volume of the
vessel (Vt) is 3 l. Also,
V t At Lc ;
so the equation becomes
K  V t  dT

3. Once we have a value for Lc, we can go back to Eq.

(2) and get a value for At. This area must be made
up by the total surface area of the baes (remembering that each bae had two wetted faces). Once a
number of baes (N) has been chosen, simple geometry can be used to determine the corresponding
diameter the baes need to provide a total area of At.
4. The baes must be spaced a distance of 2Lc apart.
We now have enough information to determine the
height and diameter of the overall vessel (remembering the gap between the edge of the baes and the
wall of the vessel must be no more than Lc). If it turns
out that this vessel is not large enough to hold the initial volume, Vt, then the value of N must be adjusted,
and step 3 repeated, until the volume Vt is achieved.
In this manner, we can design an isothermal nitrogen
vessel of the correct capacity.
After performing the above analysis, the thermal battery was designed as a set of 12 baes, with a separation


P. Hales et al. / Cryogenics 45 (2005) 109115

Fig. 5. Schematic of the nal design for the 3 l capacity thermal battery.

of 13 mm. Each bae is made from 1 mm thick copper

sheet, with a diameter of 13.7 mm. The helium coil is
attened to form a tube with a rectangular cross-section
(3 5 mm), which is then soldered to the circumference
of each bae (further details of the nal design are illustrated in Fig. 5).

6. Experimental testing
The thermal battery described in Section 5 was constructed and implemented into the entire HTS magnet
system onboard the model boat. As mentioned earlier,

heat is extracted from the magnet via conduction cooling from the magnets former. This former is made from
OFHC copper, which is thermally anchored to the thermal battery via a cold nger, also made from OFHC
copper. Pt-100 temperature sensors were placed at the
end of the cold nger, where it enters the thermal battery, as well as on the magnet former and on the outside
of the coil. The system was cooled down to 30 K by lling the thermal battery with 3 l of liquid nitrogen, allowing the system to settle at 77 K, and then running cold
helium gas through the conduction cooling tube, as described in Section 5. During the helium cooling stage,
the coil temperature dropped at a rate of approximately,

Fig. 6. Temperature traces from the cold nger, magnet former, and outside of the coil pack during stand-alone operation of the magnet at full
current (68 A).

P. Hales et al. / Cryogenics 45 (2005) 109115

9.6 K/h, until the coil, former and cold nger temperature were all at the minimum operating temperature of
30 K, and isothermal to 1 K. Approximately 30 l of
liquid helium were used to achieve this.
Following this, the helium line was disconnected, and
the magnet was energised using the onboard batteries.
At this point the system was running in true stand-alone
mode. The magnet was run at full current (68 A), and
the thermal battery was capable of limiting the rise in
the coil temperature to just 6 K/h. The temperature
traces are shown during a 20 min run of the magnet in
Fig. 6.
Based on these results, we can conclude that our thermal battery would allow operation of the magnet system
at full current for over 5 h (between the minimum and
maximum operating temperatures), provided the batteries could provide the necessary electrical current to the
magnet for this period.


For our application, this allows for mains-free operation

of the HTS magnet over a long (over 5 h) period.
If this technique is developed in parallel with the technology to make ecient HTS persistent switches, then
truly portable, semi-permanent HTS magnets can
fully develop. One possible future application for such
a thermal battery could be a backup cooling supply,
which could be implemented in series with a mechanical
cooler in a portable HTS magnet system, and provide
backup cooling if the mechanical cooler was to fail.

This work would not have been possible without
the technical assistance provided by Mr. A. Hickman,
Mr. R. Storey and Mr. R. Harris of the Clarendon

7. Conclusions
This investigation has shown that solid nitrogen is a
suitable cryogen for use in a thermal battery to cool a
stand-alone HTS magnet, provided it is frozen in the
correct manner. The lack of heat exchange between solid
nitrogen and copper, when nitrogen is frozen under vacuum, would have been hard to predict analytically.
However, it was consistent over six independent tests,
regardless of the surface area of the copper. Conduction
cooling the nitrogen does eliminate this problem, and
provided the low thermal conductivity of solid nitrogen
is accounted for, a good thermal battery can be made.

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permanent high-temperature superconducting magnet operated in
thermal communication with a mass of solid nitrogen. Cryogenics
[4] Koloskova LA, Krupskii N, Manzhelii VG, Gorodilov B. Thermal
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