What if computers didn’t get hot and batteries never lost their battery life? What if you could help power your car with the heat of its engine? Conducting electricity from one point to another, and then putting it to good use, is one of the linchpins of our modern lives. The materials that make transporting and storing energy are called conductors, and their ability to conduct is a major hurtle in the quest for energy efficiency. The better your wires, circuit boards, and silicon conduct, the more bang you get for your buck. So no wonder when a breakthrough comes along, some of us get excited. This week, two breakthroughs have the potential to shake things up for the industry.
First, let’s travel all the way back to high school physics class and remember what conducting is all about. When we talk about electricity, we’re really talking about electrons and controlling their movement through matter. In materials that conduct (like copper), all the little electrons are not strictly attached to their protons – they can float around, move in clumps or waves, or just spread out evenly. That’s why electricity is said to “travel” through a copper wire – with direct current, the electrons actually travel. So even though “money makes the world go ’round”, these days cold hard cash is transferred electronically around the globe. Conducting materials, like copper, make it possible. But not all matter is made equal; some things conduct better than others. For more more in depth review and explanations of voltage, amps, and ohms, check out Wikipedia.
Resistivity is the word that describes how well (or poorly) a material conducts electricity. When it comes to conducting, the less resistance the better. When resistance does occur, normally the energy is wasted as heat. That’s why computers get hot and require fans: resistance of electricity through silicon. With less resistivity, or even no resistivity, electrons can travel farther, deliver more energy on arrival, and reduce the amount of electricity we need for any (every) given task. We’re talking energy efficiency on steroids. Now you know why when there’s been a breakthrough in conductor technology, it’s a big deal.
Superconductors have no resistance, which means electrons can travel through them almost forever. The uses for superconductor technology are futuristic and exciting, but superconductors require special circumstances to work. Extremely hot or cold temperatures, which require a lot of energy, were required… until recently.
Advances in Conductor Technology
The first breakthrough comes to us from Boston College and MIT, where scientists have crushed a common semiconductor into tiny bits and used nanotechnology to put it back together again, but better. Now their new product conducts electricity but 40% less heat than normal conductors. Heat has always been a problem because in most conductors, heat and electricity go hand-in-hand, and the hotter many materials (like silicon) get, the less efficient they become. The new product is inexpensive and scalable to industrial sizes, and could be used to cool electronics or generate electricity from heat. Cleaner, more efficient refrigerators, cars, and solar panels (just to name a few) could result from the breakthrough. They could help power cars or factories with their own generated heat. The scientists, Zhifeng Ren and Gang Chen, will share a patent and license the technology to their start-up company GMZ Energy. Congrats to them on taking an existing technology and finding a new technique to improve it! Can you think of any other applications for this technology? Leave a comment and share your good ideas.
The second, equally exciting breakthrough: in frosty Canada a team of scientists have created a new superconductor material that performs at room temperature. By compressing materials under intense pressure, they have removed the necessity for extreme temperatures. Their findings have huge implications for anything that uses electricity. Superconductors are “super” because they waste less than 1% of the electricity that passes through them. If they become affordable and available, energy efficiency could dramatically improve for anything that needs power. Applications in the computer industry alone could revolutionize our electronics. Though this technology will probably not be readily available, it’s certainly exciting news. Superconductors are not widely used today in part because of the cost to build and maintain them, but also because of certain health and environmental factors. Superconductors can create strong magnetic fields and radio frequency energy that can harm people and wildlife. Obviously the technology must be safe in context of its use. What are your thoughts on superconductors?
As an environmentalist, I do have a few questions on my mind. Will the benefits of these technologies outweigh the cost of their production? If so, would it be possible to retrofit existing technology to benefit? And who would lend a hand towards using the technology to its fullest potential? If I find any answers, I’ll certainly write an update.
(Image courtesy of Next Energy News)