Monday, February 23, 2009

Unlocking the Secrets of the Superconductor

High temperature superconductors are a "hot item" of study these days, and scientists at the Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Fribourg have recently announced that they are one step closer to understanding how it all works.

When electricity travels through a metal (or "conducts") there is always some resistance in the material that converts a portion of the electricity to unusable heat. The less resistance the less energy lost. However when temperatures get mighty cold, within a couple of degrees above absolute zero, materials tend to lose all of their resistance. Electricity is able to flow through these materials without losing any of their energy, hence the term "superconductor." Certain copper based materials have been found to superconduct at much higher temperatures (though still only as high as a frosty -130 degrees C), but the reasons behind it have baffled scientists for decades.

Last year a whole new breed of high temperature superconductors based on Iron-arsenic compounds was discovered. Scientists comparing the two compounds noticed that their superconductive property seemed to emerge from a specific magnetic state. With further research and exploration, this find could unlock the secrets of superconductors.

This would be huge. Already cold temperature superconductors are used in things like MRIs and power colliders like the LHC, almost anywhere where high powered precision magnets are needed. If we could find out exactly what makes superconductors tick, room temperature superconductors could be around the corner.

The uses for these would be tremendous. Right now it's estimated that between 8 and 10 percent of electricity sent over the grid is converted heat and wasted. Think about it, that's entire power plants worth of energy wasted. Test programs in labs have found none of this electricity would be lost in superconductive wires. These kinds of wires are unfortunately impractical right now because the energy needed to refrigerate them is far greater than the energy saved.

1 comment:

  1. Correction: Last year's new breed of high temperature superconductors were iron arsenic, not copper-oxygen.

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