A friend likes to chide me sometimes for believing in “technologies that don’t exist yet”. It is certainly important to distinguish between technologies that could be implemented quickly given proper investment, and scaled to the proper degree (such as EVs) and technologies that will always be 10 to 20 years away, no matter how promising they sound (such as nuclear fusion).
What about superconductors? Superconductors are wires that transmit much more electricity than is carried over regular high-voltage lines, and do so in relatively thin wires (described in one article as “about the size of linguini”). There is hope that one day these superconductors will form the backbone of our national grid, transmitting huge amounts of power quickly and efficiently across the nation – the electric equivalent of the interstate superhighway system.
But on the aforementioned scale of around-the-corner to always-10-years away, the general impression is that superconductors are a futuristic technology that doesn’t, as my friend would say, exist yet.
American Superconductor, however, would say otherwise. They have recently signed a contract with Korea Electric Power Corp., South Korea’s national power utility, wherein American Superconductor will provide 80,000 meters of superconductor wire to run a half mile long distribution system. The company also built a 600 meter long system last summer for LIPA, the Long Island Power Authority in New York. It was the first ever transmission cable using superconductor technology.
The advantages of superconductors are many. First and foremost, they carry more power. A big problem many wind farms are facing, for example, is that they generate power far off the grid, and can’t find a pipeline wide enough to carry it, so to speak. Secondly, they lose less power in the transmission, which means less needs to be generated in the first place (which saves us fuel). Lastly, the wires are small, and can be built underground; besides the aesthetic value, it also helps protect the wires from the elements.
But there are still big disadvantages that still hold the technology back, American Superconductor’s contracts notwithstanding. The wires need to be chilled to -371 degrees Fahrenheit using liquid nitrogen. Sure, maybe one could argue that the electricity saved in efficiency is more than enough to run the chillers and compressors to keep things going… but even so it’s just not the kind of technology that can is feasible when you stop talking about half-mile projects and start talking about coast-to-coast projects.
Companies like American Superconductor and Zenergy, another superconductor manufacturer from the UK, are definitely struggling – both companies have been reporting losses over the last couple years. Until they come up with some breakthrough engineering, that’s not likely to change, and this technology will have to be filed under “future”.
Via Greentech Media
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