Today’s scientists are making big leaps towards unlocking the enigma of superconductivity. And we can’t help but wonder… how will this electromagnetic phenomenon transform our lives?
Superconductivity is one of the biggest mysteries of science. For more than 100 years since its discovery, scientists have known almost nothing about how or why superconductivity exists. Until now.
Only recently, some of the biggest science brains from the University of Cambridge announced they might have solved the 100-year-old mystery of high- temperature superconductors. To say this announcement may have massive implications on our lives would be an understatement. (Levitating trains, anyone?)
Wait! What is superconductivity?
Simply understood, superconductivity is the ability of certain materials to conduct electricity with zero energy loss when they are cooled to extremely low temperatures. This means the electrical resistance of the materials is zero Ohms – absolutely nothing.
Dutch scientist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes first discovered this phenomenon in 1911, when cooling liquid mercury to liquid Helium temperatures of 4.2 Kelvin. Onnes was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his groundbreaking discovery – the first of five to be awarded to scientists for superconductivity breakthroughs over the next century.
Since then, science brains around the world have been relentlessly experimenting with other elements and combinations of elements to find their superconducting state. One of the biggest breakthroughs came in 1987 when Paul Chu of the University of Houston produced yttrium-barium-copper-oxide with a transition temperature of 92 K. This was a massive step towards finding one of the most powerful and elusive materials on Earth: a room-temperature superconductor.
So what’s the big deal about superconductors?
The incredible thing about superconductors is that the resistance is zero Ohms. In fact, a current can flow around a superconducting coil for around 100,000 years without any applied voltage. This has the potential to completely revolutionise the way we use power – power storage, power distribution, electric motors, computers and more.
Here are 4 ways superconductivity could change our lives:
Superconducting magnets are already used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines in hospitals to produce the highest quality imaging. But with superconductivity more accessible, the cost of MRIs will drop significantly.
Superconducting magnets are already being considered for superfast maglev trains. The idea is to build a superconducting system onboard a train that repels the rails below – in other words, a levitating train. The train would need to be moving for this to happen, but would then be able to travel without much friction at all. Researchers suggest that “superconducting trains” would be far safer than modern-day rail systems when travelling at speeds of 200 km/h. Unsurprisingly, Japan is already at the forefront of this technology.
Superconducting motors and generators have the potential to weigh just one tenth of conventional devices with the same output. This has huge implications for specialist applications and power plants, where structural strength has limitations for conventional generators.
Superconducting power lines
Currently, 10% to 15% of generated electricity is lost through resistance in transmission lines. Superconducting power lines, on the other hand, have the potential to save billions of dollars in transmission losses.
If scientists can eventually unearth the mystery of superconductors — and they might not be far away — the potential for our lives to change is massive. Watch this space!