Scientists working at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven Laboratory are all abuzz over a new bit of evidence that could help the U.S. save a good chunk of the energy that is currently lost through power transmission lines. The DOE estimates that the nation’s antiquated transmission and distribution systems together were losing about 9.5% as of 2001, and things haven’t gotten any better since then.
The Brookhaven breakthrough involved evidence that electronic liquid crystal states can exist within a high temperature superconductor. In practical terms, that means that it may be practical to develop power lines that lose no power at all. There’s a long way to go before the rubber hits the road on this one, though. The next step is to see if the material maintains its capabilities in real conditions that can be applied to the Smart Grid of the future.
Superconductors and Transmission Lines
The problem with superconductors is their need for the deep freeze. That’s the nature of superconductivity, it requires extremely low temperatures. A conventional metal superconductor requires a temperature close to absolute zero, or -270 degrees Celsius. New iron-based superconductors can operate at -220 degrees (still chilly, but an improvement). The Brookhaven discovery exposed a similarity between the behavior of electrons in the conventional materials and the new iron-based materials. This could lead to a deeper understanding of the way superconductors operate, which in turn could lead to new materials for manufacturing zero-loss power transmission lines (among many other things).
The Key to the Brookhaven Superconductor Research
The Brookhaven project involved an international team headed up by Cornell University researcher Seamus Davis along with scientists from Japan and the U.S. They used Davis’s next-generation spectroscopic image-scanning tunneling microscopy technique, which enabled them to take direct nanoscale images of specially prepared crystals developed by another research group headed by Ames Laboratory scientist Paul Canfield. They found that some electrons formed a line along one axis of the crystal, as in an electronic liquid crystal display. Other electrons traveled freely through the crystal in a perpendicular path. These are the basic conditions for superconductivity, and the next challenge is to figure out why warmer temperatures interfere with the process.
Get Me a High Temperature Superconductor – And Make it Snappy!
DOE is in a big hurry to develop high-temperature superconductors and other new technologies before the nation’s entire electrical grid collapses, and that’s a pretty tall order. First we have to clean up after the party, namely the 20-year period in which demand increased 25% but new grid construction dropped by 30%. That’s what I call a hangover! On top of that there’s the challenge of engineering a national grid that can reliably deliver new energy sources including solar power and wind power, some of which involve complex management issues because of their intermittent nature.
Image: Power transmission lines by maveric2003 on flickr.com.
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