For those of us who dream in science fiction, for whom breakfast is a over-sized pill and their morning commute traffic rides on invisible cushions of magnetized air, this news published yesterday evening in Science Express brings at least the latter one step closer.
In the science community, they are called high-temperature superconductors. For you and me, that means that these things can operate at tempertures above 30 K (-243 Celsius)––or still pretty damn cold. Just what is a superconductor? Well, the answer is a little beyond the reach of my layman translating engine; but here’s a shot:
Superconductivity is a process by which a pair of electrons travelling in opposite directions and with opposite spin direction suddenly become attracted to one another. By pairing up, the two electrons manage to lose all their electrical resistance. This superconducting state means that current can flow without the aid of a battery.
In other words, normally, when you transmit energy (let’s say, electricity) over long distances it tends to lose more and more of itself in the process of getting where it’s going because of a number of things, but mostly having to do with “resistance” in the transmission properties of the metal that’s doing the conducting. A superconductor (high-temp or not) is something where the electrons have given up that resistance and just pretty much lay down and let the electricity pass right through them.
Why is this important, you ask? Well, with the 21st century demands we’re now putting on our 20th century energy grid, understanding this technology is becoming more and more critical so that we don’t overload our outdated grid every other week, and all of our TiVo’s stop working and we have to read Harry Potter by candlelight–like we did in New York and the whole rest of the Eastern seaboard in ’03.
A superconducting grid would allow for the transmission of great loads of energy from one part of the country to another, transferred over vast distances with little to no loss of power and no dangerous increase in the load upon the system.
What the scientists have done here is trace the behavior of the incredibly non-understood relationship between superconductivity and magnetic resistance back to absolute zero. In other words, they took perfectly good superconductors and blew them up––carefully; then they watched how they fell apart.
Understanding just how the superconductor falls apart is the key. Because at the moment, it’s kind of like watching a genie in a bottle come together. We have no idea how it works; we just know that it does.
While this discovery is by no means the holy grail, given a greater comprehension of the properties at play we just might be able to hand these things to a few imminently qualified materials scientists and voila, we’ve got wires that will be able to carry 100 gigawatts or more…!
What’s crazy is that this idea is old news to those in the science community. Just check this reference from a 2006 Scientific American article on developing new power grids to handle the killer electric crunch (emphasis mine):
In 1967 IBM physicists Richard L. Garwin and Juri Matisoo published a design for a 1,000-kilometer transmission cable made of niobium tin, which superconducts at high currents. Extraordinary amounts of direct current (DC) can pass resistance-free through such a superconductor when the metal is chilled by liquid helium to a few degrees above absolute zero. The scientists proposed a DC cable with two conductors (made of superconducting wire or tape) that together would carry 100 gigawatts–roughly the output of 50 nuclear power plants.
Garwin and Matisoo were exploring what might be possible, not what would be practical. It would not make sense to inject that much power into one point of the grid, and liquid helium is a cumbersome coolant. But their ideas inspired others. In the following decades, short superconducting cables were built and tested to carry alternating current (AC) in Brookhaven, N.Y., and near Graz, Austria, with the latter operating connected to the local grid for several years. (more here)
Now that is some kind of badass! And here I was still worried about plugging in my hair dryer and running my washing machine and microwave all at once.
In sum, let us not ask what have superconductors done for us lately, but what they may do for us soon…