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Innovation

How high-temperature superconductors could change the power grid and medical devices

Cambridge University researchers have developed a way to produce high-temperature superconductors. From protecting the power grid from blackouts to making MRI scanners cheaper, we are only in the beginning of the emerging superconductor industry.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

I'm sure I wasn't the only one who cranked up their air conditioning on full blast during the heat wave last week.  My Florida upbringing failed to prepare me for the 103 degrees Fahrenheit weather. But luckily, the lights stayed on and the electricity kept flowing.

With the help of sensors and electrical meters, the national grid did not fail despite the sudden demand. This is not always the case — back in 2003, a blackout event left 55 million people without power.

If the power grid is outfitted with superconductors, it could prevent such events from ever happening. The only problem is that producing superconducting devices in bulk has been quite challenging.

By using novel methods to produce high-temperature superconducting materials, Cambridge researchers produced samples of superconducting materials that carry impressive amounts of electrical current.

The researchers might have a way to mass produce the superconducting materials, which would make the national grid less prone to blackouts and would make producing MRI scanners much cheaper.

"The potential advantages of developing viable high-temperature superconductors are huge," Professor David Cardwell at the University's Department of Engineering, says in a statement. "The processes we have developed and patented should enable us to develop samples that are better, bigger, cheaper and more reliable."

For instance, standard conductors like copper wires lose energy. More than 10 percent of the electrical energy is lost in route from British power stations to peoples' homes. However, if superconductors were used, it would be more energy efficient. Plus, superconductors "carry 100 times more current than copper."

Tokyo could use some superconducting love.

Copper wires carry electricity under Tokyo. But the demand for power exceeds the capability of the cables that supply it. You can replace the copper wires with superconductors to increase your power transmission capability without having to dig the streets of Tokyo up, Cardwell says in the video below.

The researchers developed a way to mass produce single grains of superconductors by heating the material to 1,000 degrees Celsius.

This made the material melt. The researchers added other chemicals before the material cooled down.

When it took its new shape, the material contained defects that dictated how magnetic fields distributed current across the single grain boundaries.

It's not as complicated as it sounds. Basically, the researchers built more bridges, so more current could cross it. So for its sample size, the amount of current generated was unheard of.

The applications of superconductors include:

  • MRI scanners
  • magnetic separators
  • high-speed monorail trains
  • mechanical flywheels
  • Large Hadron Collider

Superconductors might one day be as prevalent and revolutionary as transistors and lasers. But Cardwell says to give superconductors 10 years to mature.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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