Monday, January 10, 2011

Are superconductors finally coming of age?

Amperium wire architecture: Transmission electron micrograph of yttria nanodots in the YCBO matrix.

By Stephen Lacey, Editor
January 6, 2011 

Massachusetts -- Every technology must compete against an incumbent: Transistors fought vacuum tubes; optical fibers fought copper wires in communications; and today, superconductors are facing off against copper cables in the electricity transmission space. 

Superconductor technologies have made significant advancements in the last decade; however, there are still some hurdles to get over before they are implemented en masse.

At very low temperatures – between -320 degrees F (-196 C) and -460 degrees F (-273 C) – certain metal and ceramic materials conduct electricity with virtually no resistance. Wires made of these superconducting materials can transmit 100-150 times more electricity than traditional copper wires without any losses in efficiency. (Wires that operate in the -320 degree F range are called “high-temperature” superconductors, or HTS).

Scientists have known about superconductivity since the early 1900's. But it's only in recent years that companies have produced wires and cables that are becoming cost-competitive with traditional technologies.

Greg Yurek, CEO of American Superconductor (AMSC), thinks that the time is right for HTS technologies to penetrate the market. Last year, the company received an order for 10 million feet (3 million meters) of wire from the South Korean company LS Cable. This is the first in a series of orders that could bring more than 30 miles of superconductor cable to South Korea. The company expects numerous orders to come from China in the coming years as well.

“I think it's a marker of the transition into the age of superconductors,” says Yurek.

On a wire to wire basis, superconductors can cost multiples more than copper. But on the system level – when factoring in capacity, lifetime, efficiency and maintenance – Yurek says that superconducting cables are cost-competitive with conventional cables. And because they're buried underground, HTS cables avoid problems associated with weather or visual impact. ...

Are Superconductors Finally Coming of Age?

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