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Ask Slashdot: How Would Room-Temp Superconductors Affect Us?

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the I'd-care-more-about-electric-cars dept.

Technology 262

Bananatree3 writes "While we have sci-fi visions of room temperature superconductors like in the movie Avatar, the question still remains: How would the discovery of a such a material impact our everyday lives? How would the nature of warfare change? How would the global economy react? What are the cultural pros and cons of such a technological shift?" And just as important, in what contexts would you want to see it first employed?

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Perspective, people, perspective (2, Insightful)

ShooterNeo (555040) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465039)

By the standards of the physical universe, "room temperature" is pretty arbitrary. For a spacecraft, keeping superconductors cold is reasonably easy.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465047)

From a human perspective I am rather fond of living at or around room temperature.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (5, Informative)

Electricity Likes Me (1098643) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465049)

Not really: radiative emission is the only type of cooling you can get in space. Depending how much power you're bleeding off elsewhere on your ship, it could be quite difficult to keep things suitably cool. Especially considering that any part of your ship facing the sun is going to be picking up quite a high thermal load.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (4, Informative)

forand (530402) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465159)

This is true but one of the great things about a superconductor is that R (and thus the power dissipated) goes to zero. So while it is difficult to dissipate heat in space, you won't be building up heat in the superconductors themselves.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (5, Insightful)

virg_mattes (230616) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465447)

The idea that the superconductor won't be adding to the thermal load is all well and good, but it doesn't cope with the problem of heat that comes in from solar radiation or heat generated by other parts of the ship like engines. Furthermore, it becomes a self-reinforcing problem, because being unable to dissipate heat makes the superconductor stop superconducting, which only adds to the problem.


Re:Perspective, people, perspective (3, Insightful)

GreenTech11 (1471589) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465065)

While you're correct in the second half of your comment, you are ignoring the very good reasons that are driving our search for a room-temperature superconductor. Without doing the calculations, I very much doubt that there is enough fuel on Earth to lift the entire population into a near-Earth orbit, not to mention the massive amounts of infrastructure required to keep them there, (and breathing).

Therefore, a superconductor which would allow us to eliminate the massive amounts of wastage in our electrical infrastructure is certainly useful. Conveniently, most of Earth is at a "room temperature" or similar, making it a far less arbitrary concept. In terms of effect on everyday life, I like to think that in the long run it'll be beneficial, hopefully removing some of the lack of resources which drives most conflicts. Of course, most of human history is against me on that one, technological leaps like these tend to trigger conflicts in the short term, before providing net benefit to the populations, hopefully we survive the next one.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (4, Interesting)

Maury Markowitz (452832) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465301)

"Therefore, a superconductor which would allow us to eliminate the massive amounts of wastage in our electrical infrastructure "

The wastage in the electric infrastructure, on a whole, is about 7% in the US. Speaking of long-distance transmission only, it's closer to 3%

There's not much to fix here, so unless the new superconductor is also free, I don't think you'd see the massive uptake people imagine.

The main upside would be size, not cost. Assuming it has higher current density, piping power into urban areas becomes easier.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (4, Insightful)

NEDHead (1651195) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465721)

While these facts may be true on the surface (I haven't actually checked), what you are missing is that most energy production is relatively local, and hence generating capacity is built & run to deal with local maximal demand. Truly efficient long, long distance transmission lines would allow distant capacity to be factored in to the system. Think wind, solar, day vs night etc. There is currently a project (Tres Amigos) designed around a superconducting hub to connect the three major energy networks in the US. In addition there are (at least) plans for several other superconducting trunks, including one to link a number of off shore wind projects. The net efficiency gains for the system as a whole would far exceed the 3-7% mentioned above.

That said, I am partial to local production, as finely grained as possible, to cover the baseline requirements and minimize the opportunity for system-wide failures.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (4, Insightful)

Iamthecheese (1264298) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465947)

That 7% is transmission loss only. Now consider using it in computing to prevent waste heat from being generated. In radio transmitters for better efficiency. In house wiring. In appliances. In cars. In electric cars. Now you're talking about at least a 50% boost. And that's before you consider using it in electric motors and generators.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (1, Offtopic)

ShooterNeo (555040) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465759)

Put this into your "without doing the calculations" claptrap.

Just think for a moment. Ok, so there is not enough petroleum on the planet to put everyone into near earth orbit. But, that isn't the only way. ENERGY is what is needed. How might you get enough energy?

1. Massive solar arrays in space. These arrays could have more surface area than the planet, and generate electricity 24/7.
2. Thorium and Uranium Breeder Reactors
3. Covering the earth with solar panels
4. ??? Fusion???

The first 3 are solid, there's absolutely no convincing argument that can state that these are more than hard engineering problems. They are absolutely achievable, and we have proofs of concept for all 3.

How do you use that energy to get to space?

1. Synthesize chemical rocket propellant from H20 or with CO2 to make synthetic kerosene.
2. Mass drivers to launch the payloads out of a gun.
3. Chemically fired mass drivers using hydrogen gas
4. Laser Launch
5. ??? Space Elevator ???

Well, ok, this is an awful lot of aerospace hardware to build to actually move 6 billion and counting folks. Plus their pets. How could you ever manufacture enough spacecraft and vehicles to do this for a cost that could be paid?

See Nanotechnology, Molecular Manufacturing.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465075)

Is it hell, space isn't cold, it is inert. I seriously wish people would stop thinking this.
The only way heat gets out of things in space is radiative or an infinitely small amount of conductive.
Direct sunlight on a person would burn them in space, likewise heating up metals and components.

Space is actually probably harder to cool things down in simply due to sunlight.
On earth it is pretty easy to have something in shadow and vented so that an incredible amount of heat is exchanged over to the flowing air.
In space, you can only rely on highly-resistant insulators and/or mirrors to get rid of heat unless you liquid cool things. (which is good too since you can then use that heat inside the ship)

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465351)

Space is actually very hot - there may not be many particles, but they are moving fast. The only reason it seems cold is that, even though most things in space will gain heat by conduction, the rate is negligable compared to radiative transfer.

Re:Perspective, people, perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465791)

"By the standards of the physical universe, "room temperature" is pretty arbitrary."

But as you might know, that's a rather uncommon standard for room temperature.

Dinner (2)

Pino Grigio (2232472) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465045)

I could levitate my dinner plate, replacing the need for cushions on my sofa.

Re:Dinner (2)

arth1 (260657) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465273)

Let's be realistic here. Like so many other technological advances, what's going to make it take off is SEX.
Levitating sex will sell, I have no doubts.

From there, the applications will (if you excuse the language) trickle down to more mundane uses. I'm sure there are lots of kitchen uses, for example. But sex first, cause that's where the money is.

Re:Dinner (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465769)

Levitating sex? Clearly you don't have much sex involving two or more consenting adults if you think this is what would sell.

CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (1)

Artem Tashkinov (764309) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465055)

That is where I want room-temperature superconductors first of all.

100% computational efficiency, 0% heat release, no fans/ventilators/etc, almost completely quite computer (except for rotational HDDs and PSUs).

Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465115)

I thought virtually all the loss in a modern processor (post mid-1980s) was reactive not resistive.

Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465261)

Reactive losses can be counteracted entirely by load balancing. If processors were mostly reactive loads laptops would last a very long time without a charge.

Resistance is the resistivity of the material times the length of the conductor over the cross-sectional area of the conductor. Every time you hear a new amazingly tiny feature size for a new processor the cross-sectional area of the conductor is shrinking.

Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465701)

That's idiotic. Can you imagine the space that would require? And "load balancing" is not the term you want. It's either "neutralisation" (old school radio term) or "resonance". Please show how you would build inductors in a modern IC process, then tell me how efficient it would be, and the area required...

Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465797)

I don't know what your point is supposed to be about the resistivity and shrinking - the length shrinks proportionally with the cross sectional area so nothing changes.

Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465527)

Most of the loss is resistance in the transistors themselves. A transistor that is on like a resistor with moderately low resistance. A transistor that is off is like a resistor with higher resistance. Superconductors can't help with that unless you ditch the transistor concept altogether.

Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (4, Informative)

amorsen (7485) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465127)

100% computational efficiency, 0% heat release

You can't do that. Any non-reversible computation causes an increase in entropy, and reversible computation is not particularly practical. Achieving practical reversible computation would be a leap at least as large as room temperature superconductors.

Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465363)

You should be able to get a great improvement though. The current semiconductors aren't operating anywhere close to theoretical limits.

Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (2)

Carewolf (581105) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465887)

Reversible computing is not that hard, you just have to use reversible operations. You will need an instruction to throw away data though to be Turing complete though, but at least it would make the non-reversible instruction very clear.

Almost all math operation can be written as a reversible operation by make the operation produce a result and remainder.

A + B : ADDSUB(A,B) => (A+B, A-B)
A * B: MULMOD(A,B) => (A*B, A # B)

Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (5, Informative)

gmaslov (1983830) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465143)

I may be wrong but I don't believe superconducting logic would allow for zero heat release during computations; not unless we also adopt reversible computing [] , due to the theoretical minimum amount of heat generated [] whenever an irreversible bit operation is performed. On the other hand, this limit is so low that for all practical foreseeable purposes it may as well be zero.


Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (3, Interesting)

rgbatduke (1231380) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465691)

First of all, mod+1 for the reference to the minimum amount of heat -- I knew that such a limit existed but it was good to see the estimate and have links to the formal argument and beyond. Second, while we may or may not be able to reduce the heat released from the bits themselves as they change state, room temperature superconductors will still make two very significant improvements in processor design. First, reducing the resistance of everything BUT the bits will reduce the heat released by a chip by a nontrivial amount, rather a nontrivial fraction -- presuming that one can lay down the superconductor in VLSI circuits and mass produce them, as opposed to build them a molecule at a time. Second, electrical superconductors are usually thermal superconductors as well.

It is this latter property that is probably by far the most important. Note e.g. this article: [] -- if one were able to make the base of a chip out of a superconductor in good thermal contact with the actual semiconductor matrix a thin film on top of it, and couple that base directly to a superconducting heat sink, one could e.g. produce 10x to 50x the heat in the actual CPU and still remove it fast enough to keep the chip itself sufficiently cool. If the traces within the chip itself were superconducting, if clever use of superconducting material let one reduce the heat associated with switching closer to the limit, so much the better. Ultimately, it would probably mean that one could run chips at higher voltage and higher clock to produce faster reliable switching and still deal with the heat.

I don't have time to do a formal estimate of the speedup possible, but I'm guestimating that a real thermal superconductor -- one with "zero" resistance to the flow of heat -- suitable for use as the base material for a chip would permit a very rapid scale-up of chip speed by up to an order of magnitude in clock or effective clock. It also might make it possible to build a three dimensional CPU -- one reason chips are 2D is so that one can get the heat out; if one had a thermal/electrical superconductor one could in principle stack up layers and scale performance by one or more orders of magnitude, at first multiple cores on steroids but all at much higher clocks, later true 3d design and layout.

In any event, the impact would very probably be profound, at least if the hypothetical RTS was cheap and suitable for nanoscale integration as a substrate and/or trace material (and functioned as a thermal superconductor as well as noted).

Still, I think that simply eliminating resistivity in power transmission would have the greatest societal impact. PV solar power, for example, "instantly" becomes feasible because one can generate in the Mojave and use the electricity in Maine without transmission loss. That isn't huge, that is game-changing enormous. The Sahara become the electrical source for Europe and Africa, India for Asia, etc. Depending on the hypothetical materials magnetic properties (big if, actually!) it may well revolutionize electrical motor design, maglev trains and roadways, and more, but just letting us move power for free to where we use it makes Edison have the last laugh over Tesla -- human civilization can convert to low voltage DC electrical service. A civilization run on 5 VDC would make electrocution a historical oddity from pre-RTS times -- one can manage to kill yourself with as little as 9 volts (see my favorite Darwin Award, "Resistance is Futile" -- [] ) but 50 mA should be below the fatal threshold even for somebody that tries very hard.


Re:CPUs/GPUs/SOCs/etc (1)

zAPPzAPP (1207370) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465557)

I don't see how superconducting would help with cumputing.
You want to send as little current into your cpu as possible. The current it does draw results from switching transistors and leaking current through a blocking transistor.
The logic is based on voltage levels, not current. In an ideal (theoretical) cpu you would have distinct voltage levels over infinite resistors and instantly switching transistors, so that it works without drawing any current at all.
Superconducting is the last thing you'd want.

the answer (4, Insightful)

Tom (822) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465057)

The most realistic answer, but not the one you want to hear, is: Nobody really knows.

If history teaches us one thing than it is that we are horrible at predicting the outcomes of anything major. In hindsight, we can "explain" things, but our predictions suck so badly, it's a surprise we haven't given up on the subject. And that's for both experts and non-experts.

Nobody came even close to predicting the impact of computers. Or electricity. People didn't think WW1 would become the slaughterhouse it did. There are refugees around the globe who are living in "temporary" shelters, waiting to return home because the conflict will surely be over any day now. Some of them have been waiting for a decade and more.

The real impact of this technology, as most, will most likely not be anything that anyone today predicts, but something that someone in the future comes up with that nobody thought of before. That includes the inventors. I don't think Graham Bell ever thought that "please turn off your mobile phones" would be a screen shown in these newfangled movie theatres that just came about in his time.

Re:the answer (3, Funny)

Mikkeles (698461) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465179)

Well, obviously, like every other industrial advance in the last few hundred years, it will cause cows' milk to sour, the sun to stop rising and setting, and cancer.

Re:the answer (5, Insightful)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465197)

You can't predict everything, but you can predict some things. Before the Internet, people could look at networks and think that it would be possible to replace mail order shops and newspapers with a network connection, for example. It's a small leap to go from board games to imagining a machine that could sit in your living room and let you play any board game you wanted on a screen. It's a bigger leap to go from that to the kinds of computer game we have available today.

There are some very obvious applications for room-temperature superconductors, if they could be made cheap enough. The most obvious is long power lines. For example, a moderate sized solar power plant in the middle of the Sahara desert could provide Europe with most of the power that it needs quite easily, but the transmission losses make it unfeasible. With a superconducting power line, it would be just as cheap as local solar power. Taking this a step further, you could have a power ring going all around the world so that there would always be sun shining somewhere and feeding in power. This would cause quite massive changes to the economics of power generation and distribution.

Another obvious place is in transportation. Maglev trains can run very efficiently now, but with room temperature superconductors the cost of building the track would be much lower (you could use electromagnets that would permanently keep their charge and wouldn't require cooling).

Basically, anything that uses magnets or relies on power distribution would suddenly become massively more efficient. More importantly, perhaps, a lot of things that currently use ball bearings and other anti-friction devices could be modified to use electromagnets instead.

It's also worth remembering that superconductors are not just free of electrical resistance, they also have a constant temperature along their lengths. This would make them perfect for anything involving heat redistribution, if they could maintain their superconducting property up to around 350-400 Kelvin. For example, you could easily make a small fanless computer if you could cote the whole of the outside in a layer of superconductor with a pad touching the top of the CPU - the entire case would be a heat sink, and the CPU would never get hotter than the case. House heating systems would be similarly simplified. Rather than having a boiler that heated water and then pumped it through radiators, your radiators could just be coated in a superconducting material with superconducting wires leading into the boiler. As you heated up the end in the boiler, you'd heat up all of the radiators. More efficient and also simpler to build. Not to mention being easier to extend - you could add another radiator by just running a wire from an existing one...

Re:the answer (3, Informative)

nickersonm (1646933) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465297)

No, superconductors are not thermally superconductive, just electrically. Niven made a mistake there.

Re:the answer (1)

newcastlejon (1483695) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465847)

Pity. Is there an analogue (even theoretical) to electrical superconductors that would work along the lines that Niven described?

A superconductor of heat might be almost as significant a discovery as the electrical ones.

Re:the answer (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465991)

Don't forget, to a Space Nutter like Raven here, sci-fi is engineering. Any childish daydream with "sci-fi" along the spine is the same as a PhD in physics, you don't even need to verify it! Then you expose yourself as an utter fool on the internet. This is why they're called Nutters. Seriously, this is going into my Space Nutter delusions bookmarks...

Re:the answer (1)

Opportunist (166417) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465347)

This is a typical technologist prediction. I predict, after watching our economy, that there will be SO much resistance from companies who are on one side powerful and on the other side the biggest losers from such developments that it won't happen, no matter how sensible it would be. Instead, we'll probably get the same kind of power plants of today with higher efficiency and people thinking it's great that we now waste less power on transportation.

Re:the answer (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465723)

I predict, after watching our economy, that there will be SO much resistance from companies who are on one side powerful and on the other side the biggest losers from such developments that it won't happen, no matter how sensible it would be

What won't happen?

Instead, we'll probably get the same kind of power plants of today with higher efficiency and people thinking it's great that we now waste less power on transportation.

First, that's the prediction that was made. Second, those people would be right. We're not going to get radically different sorts of power plants because there aren't radically different sorts of power plants to get. They're almost all heat engines in the end.

And it would be great if we were using a lot less energy on transportation.

As to "powerful corporations", they haven't ever been powerful enough to prevent the future.

Re:the answer (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465389)

Actually current high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines have remarkedly low losses - Wikipedia says about 3% per 1Mm.

Re:the answer (0)

Ironhandx (1762146) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465677)

This is a stat I see quoted quite often, and its so wrong I keep wondering how it stays alive.

Basically over half of the losses actually happen while stepping up the power for transmission or stepping it back down for use at the other end.

Yes the LINES only lose 3% but the process to step the power up and down lose an additional 4% or more. As the transformers age the loss goes up.

As solar power is only barely on the edge of viable right now, with subsidies, taking an additional 7% hit pushes it over the edge into non-viable town.

Re:the answer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465637)

About a conductive ring around the globe, would there be a danger of inverting north/south pole if you make too much current flow in the wrong direction around the globe? What if AC is used instead of DC? What would be "too much current"?

Re:the answer (1)

marcosdumay (620877) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465983)

You just put two lines there, each with current in an oposite direction. The same way people do transimission lines today.

Re:the answer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465819)

It's also worth remembering that superconductors are not just free of electrical resistance, they also have a constant temperature along their lengths.

No, superconductors are poor conductors of heat. It's actually one of the properties of superconductors, there's a distinct swing in thermal conductivity near the transition temp, before dropping with temperature.

"Ordinarily a large electrical conductivity is accompanied by a large thermal conductivity, as in the case of copper, used in electrical wiring and cooking pans. However, the thermal conductivity of a pure superconductor is less in the superconducting state than in the normal state, and at very low temperatures approaches zero. Crudely speaking, the explanation for the association of infinite electrical conductivity with vanishing thermal conductivity is that the transport of heat requires the transport of disorder (entropy). The superconducting state is one of perfect order (zero entropy), and so there is no disorder to transport and therefore no thermal conductivity." Link []

Re:the answer (3, Insightful)

TornCityVenz (1123185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465265)

If history teaches us anything, The first use would somehow be related to Porn.

Where's my hoverboard? (2)

Nick Fel (1320709) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465059)

Warfare? Who'd go to war when they had a hoverboard at home?

in what contexts would you want it first employed? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465061)

Better porn. What else is technology for?

Ease the transition to a non fosil fuel energy gen (1)

c0lo (1497653) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465069)

SMES [] .

Re:Ease the transition to a non fosil fuel energy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465107)

And how about replacing rare earth metals used as magnets?

Re:Ease the transition to a non fosil fuel energy (1)

c0lo (1497653) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465135)

And how about replacing rare earth metals used as magnets?

Superconductor electro-magnets are not permanent ones - the moment you tap into their stored field, it decays.

Seems like a simple answer (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465073)

Can't we just assume that current applications of superconductors [] would become more portable and smaller?

Not necessarily more prevalent or cheaper though. No one said room temperature superconductivity would be cheap.

Re:Seems like a simple answer (1)

realityimpaired (1668397) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465169)

There are new applications that can be opened up by having high temperature superconductors, though. Because I work in the telecom industry, one example leaps immediately to mind: if we can devise a high temperature ductile superconductor, we can replace all of the copper telephone lines, and the fiber optic that they're being replaced with, with superconducting lines. These lines would allow for service over a *much* greater distance than even fiber optic (which caps out at about 14km from the ONU), while still offering higher speeds than we can get today.

It's the resistance in copper lines that limits the telephone service to a certain maximum (about 10km on copper for voice, though that can be extended with load coils), and it's that same resistance that limits the distance for DSL technologies. It's also the main limiting factor for distance in coaxial cables as well. Imagine the impact it would have if we could run a 10 gigabit ethernet cable to a distance of 100km from the CO. High temperature ductile superconductors would make that possible. Even if it stopped being a superconductor past about 40'C, it would still allow us to service *most* of the world's population (there's very few areas where the in-ground temperature is over 40'C and most of them are unpopulated).

Re:Seems like a simple answer (1)

TheLink (130905) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465501)

To me a lot of it depends on how much current the superconductor can hold and what magnetic fields it can endure before losing superconductivity. And how expensive it is.

If things are ideal you can use it to store large amounts of energy indefinitely (of course if stuff happens it could explode). Such a energy storing method could change things a lot.

All the other conductivity stuff isn't a big deal- existing technology can already achieve small losses over great distances.

This sort of energy storage and "fancy magnetic stuff" require the electric current to travel "infinite" distances without loss and hence superconductivity.

Small Hadron Collider (1)

Roger W Moore (538166) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465953)

If things are ideal you can use it to store large amounts of energy indefinitely

If the critical field strength is so high that it is a practical energy storage device then building a far smaller version of the Large Hadron Collider would be possible. At the moment the LHC is limited by the largest _reliable_ magnetic field strength we can create. If we can replace those with magnets 100 times more powerful which do not need liquid helium cooling then we could shrink the ring from 27km round to 270m round - or increase the energy of the LHC by an order of magnitude or so.

Power lines. (1)

Mercury (13121) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465083)

Assuming that it goes high enough, power disturbation. It's enough of a savings that every decade or so people talk about using current generation superconductors for it, need for cryogenic cooling and all.

Then making a lot of stuff that uses current superconductors cheaper, like MRI machines and particle accelerators.

Sure, I bet that there will be _plenty_ of new stuff, but I'm less convinced that anyone is going to be able to predict what that will be all that well.

Horrible... (3, Interesting)

solidraven (1633185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465085)

The first use will be warfare as is always the case sadly. You'll probably first see rail- and coil-guns show up. Next you'll find its uses in radars and specifically in trying to make them useless. Then it will proceed into gimmicks for rich people. After that it'll go to civil scientists (space exploration, particle accelerators, ...) and maybe a few years later into people's houses. Somewhere in between all of that somebody might find a use for it in medicine (other than improving your standard NMRI).

Re:Horrible... (3, Funny)

Tim12s (209786) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465217)

The highest selling application of this will end up in some sort of glowing cat with a pink ribbon sold to kids, that you have to press a button to feed all day.

Re:Horrible... (3, Interesting)

Tim12s (209786) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465223)

No batteries for kids toys. Yup. Thats probably the winning application.

tin can telephones (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465089)

replace the string between two tin cans with a room-temperature superconductor and you'd have excellent clarity of sound between my sons room and the kids next door, even when the 'string' isn't taut. That's what I'd like to see first.

Re:tin can telephones (1)

Haxagon (2454432) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465295)

I'm wondering what the exact property of a superconductor is that makes this possible? It seems like it would be excellent for use in microphones, artificial ears, and perhaps artificial vocal chords? That's interesting, I've never heard that of superconductors before.

well (3, Interesting)

strack (1051390) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465093)

OLED monitor floating in midair. pen floating in midair. FLUX PIN ALL THE THINGS

supercircuits (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465113)

First thing it would be used for (assuming affordable) would be ridiculously fast circuitry with almost no need for cooling. Think supercomputer levels with no need for massive cooling systems that fit in your laptop.

It would be an analyst's wet dream, all the processing power you could need for a fraction of the cost we have now.

Re:supercircuits (1)

ledow (319597) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465137)

I don't think it would, because of your assumption.

Affordable or not, at some point you have to do a cost/value trade-off and it will be a LONG time after they become technically affordable before they give you a manufacturing tradeoff that's *worth* throwing away the 40p fan we use at the moment.

Like SSD's - been around for YEARS, but still not viable for everything, or even close to it.

patents (1)

jamesh (87723) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465131)

Depending on who discovers it, it might make us take a good hard look at the patent system when the patent holders start screwing over everyone who wants to do anything with it. Especially if the material can be manufactured relatively cheaply and a major part of the cost is the right to manufacture it.

Even more interesting would be if it was discovered in China or some other country with a (perceived?) history of disregard for foreign IP.

The technology itself will probably be interesting too.

Re:patents (1)

Courageous (228506) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465853)

I don't know why a discovery grants an intellectual property right...

prediction (1)

Trepidity (597) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465141)

All the initial applications will have something to do with high-frequency trading.

Not all that much? (1)

Mr Z (6791) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465151)

Well, we currently only lose about 6-7% of the electric energy we generate to transmission losses. So, superconducting transmission lines are unlikely to be earth shattering. Someone else posted a link to SMES -- these are superconducting energy storage devices. If those become cheap and plentiful, then we might blunt the distinction between "peak" and "offpeak" electricity use, allowing us to size powerplants more moderately.

If the material could work in place of aluminum or copper in a semiconductor, it might help cut down the amount of power your PC sucks out of the wall.

But, in general, I wouldn't expect anything dramatic. A lot of things would just get "a little more efficient."

Re:Not all that much? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465203)

6% Percent of the electric energy is still quite a bit of money though. Even with know high temperature superconductors (liquid nitrogen temperature), would save that, for the cost of the cable, plus LN2 cooling, In fact such cables have already been deployed in a couple of cities.

Re:Not all that much? (2)

realityimpaired (1668397) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465267)

Well, we currently only lose about 6-7% of the electric energy we generate to transmission losses.

6% of a trillion-dollar industry is "not all that much"?

Re:Not all that much? (2)

Chris Mattern (191822) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465345)

Well, we currently only lose about 6-7% of the electric energy we generate to transmission losses.

And in order to achieve that, it's necessary to keep it quite rare for any large amount of electricity to be transmitted for long distances. With room-temperature superconductors, it's possible for electricity generated anywhere in the world to be used anywhere in the world. That's gonna make for a big change.

But, in general, I wouldn't expect anything dramatic. A lot of things would just get "a little more efficient."

You really, really don't have any idea of superconductors are capable of, do you? It's lot more than just making electricity transmission more efficient.

It is not about "having" it (1)

gweihir (88907) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465163)

It is about producing it in large enough quantity and cheap enough to deploy it. Even than, I expect that changes would be slow and minor, not anything earth-shattering. Why always these stupid fake "visions" where one thing has tremendous impact? The world does not work that way.

Re:It is not about "having" it (1)

strack (1051390) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465247)

yes. it totally does not work that way. one thing never has a tremendous impaCOUGH COUGH CARS COUGH ELECTRICITY COUGH NUCLEAR POWER COUGH THE INTERNET COUGH COUGHct. ahem.

Re:It is not about "having" it (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465343)

You need to get that COUGH looked at. It sounds bad.

Electricity storage (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465181)

Wouldn't it allow far more efficient ways of storing and retrieving electricity ? It would make alternative power sources (sun, wind) far more attractive.

There are some interesting applications (4, Insightful)

Sique (173459) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465187)

Maglevs comes to mind - you only once load the magnets along the track, and then they will keep the magnetic field forever.
Imagine roadrails along the interstates which keep the cars on track. Also the hover car will suddenly be feasible - as soon as the car moves forward, induction will load the magnets inside the car and let it hover along the supra conducting magnets in the road. You can see the effect already today at some science shows where they have supraconducting maglevs. Zero friction against the track, just air friction left. One can imagine subways with supracontucting tracks, which work with air pressure along the tubes.

Super strong magnets can be build, which you once load with electricity and which then keep the magnetism forever. Construction could get rid of glue and screws, just put the elements together, load the magnets once, and they will keep everything in shape. You could lock your house with magnetic bars, which once locked, keep tight until you unload the electricity from the bars and they open again.

You could store electricity in giant coils instead of chemical cells, making loading and unloading the electricity much faster, and enabling lots of non-constant electricity creators like windwheels and solar panels to work within a giant grid and finally overcome the problem of the electric base load.

Re:There are some interesting applications (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465255)

No doubt, but the big question is: does it work in magnetic fields? Current "high temperature superconductors" stop superconducting at very moderate magnetic field strengths, and that makes them mostly unsuitable for electric motor kind of applications. The material of choice is still a classic helium cooled superconductor.

Re:There are some interesting applications (1)

Sique (173459) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465309)

As you can see in this video [] , it works already with liquid nitrogen, much higher as helium cooled supra conduction.

Re:There are some interesting applications (1)

quintus_horatius (1119995) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465811)

Building a large structure using superconducting magnetic connections sounds interesting... Until you have a hot fire and the entire structure collapses.

More solar and wind power in the USA (1)

forand (530402) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465193)

The US currently loses about 6.5% of the power generated to transmission losses. If we developed a material capable of being used for transmission lines (i.e. super conductive at >60 C and malleable enough to be made into wires) we would gain that back promptly which would also reduce our carbon emissions. It would become far more economically viable to build large scale solar and wind power farms in the central areas of the USA (further from the large population centers) as one would not be losing as much to transmission losses.


jsprenkle (2009592) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465219)

If the semiconductor has a high flux density quench then we could make a small toroidial coil and dump a large current into it. The stored power could then be extracted by magnetic coupling using a coil wrapped around it.

There's a down side though if you can store large amounts of power. If you break the circuit the power will need to go somewhere and you get a large explosion. It would make a good bomb, EMP weapon, replacement for gun powder (rail gun anyone?), car battery, etc. (I'm using this in my up coming MMO)

If you can store really large amounts of power then why bother with small power plants? Take your town battery to Niagra Falls, charge it up, then truck it back. No more power distribution grid problems and power loss over long haul lines.

"Would you like some Cold Fusion with your order?" (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465231)

Well, we would need plenty of cheap electricity to power all those super superconducting super devices. I guess the DOA Superconducting Super Collider might have a second chance.

Power storage, and power transfer. (1)

Gnaythan1 (214245) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465239)

storage: if there is no loss, can you make a ring of superconductor material, and start feeding dc power into that ring letting it spin around and around the hoop... feeding it more and more... then letting it sit till you need it, at which point you tap in and pull it out... theoretically this ring could hold a HELL of a lot of electricity.

transfer... most of the power from an electrical generation station, nuclear, hydro, coal, whatever... is lost in the wires getting it to where its needed... if the wiring had no loss, our current infrastructure would have at least twice the power available to do work.

Re:Power storage, and power transfer. (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465369)

There's a limit for storage. Superconductors lose their superconductivity in the presence of magnetic fields over a threshold strength that depends on material used. This is why record-breaking electromagnets still use the really thick coil of copper construction.

Red Wine Consumption (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465241)

Well, Red Wine Consumption [] would go through the roof!

puppeteers are gonna pwn us. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465251)

Great, until thos damn puppeteers devise a virus to unexpectadly turn them into dust Then all or our floating buildings will come crashing down around us. Thats gonna suck.

energy transfer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465263)

Low loss energy transfer from solar power plants in Sahara desert to Europe, which will allow Europe to abandon fossil fuels.

one word..... (1)

Dolphinzilla (199489) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465275)

Hoverboard !

Well, to begin with... (5, Informative)

bertok (226922) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465277)

Most people think of superconductors as merely a "perfectly efficient" conductor. While this is true, it just scratches the surface of what's possible with superconductors. Using superconductors just to improve efficiency wouldn't be that big a deal by itself. It would improve battery life a little bit, and maybe drop bulk electricity transmission overheads, but not by much, and certainly not immediately. Making most superconductors into high-tensile wire is a non-trivial exercise, even if cooling isn't a problem -- and it will be! Just because a material is discovered that can conduct at "room" temperature isn't helpful for wire outdoors in direct sunlight, or in a hot environment inside high-temperature machinery. Last but not least, superconductors have current and magnetic field limits that increase as they are cooled past the transition temperature. A superconductor with a transition temperature of 26C would probably have only a few limited applications above 20C.

The other uses are more interesting, and often more amenable to thermal control:

The Meissner_effect [] provides magnetic shielding, which is useful for all sorts of things, like amplifiers, or for protecting sensitive electronics. This is also what causes magnets to levitate above Type 2 superconductors. I assume that a room-temperature superconductor would be Type 2, so levitation would likely be possible.

The London moment [] could be used in gyroscopes and the like.

Josephson junctions [] provide all sorts of functions, like ultra-sensitive magnetic field sensors (think hard-drives and MRIs).

Still, all of that is a bit... meh. I mean sure, you get less noise in your now ultra-sensitive amplifier, and electricity will cost 10% less than it would have otherwise in 30 years. Is this life changing? Probably not really.

A much more interesting potential application than all of those combined is Rapid Single Flux Quantum [] digital circuitry. That stuff makes silicon look like vacuum tubes. Think 100GHz+, self-clocking, 1000x as efficient as CMOS, and manufacturable now, with only the cooling requirement the big down-side. If RSFQ could be made to work at room-temperature (or even near it), you could be looking at a sudden massive leap forward in computer power like never before. For example, with a power draw 1000x lower, it would be possible to stack every chip in a typical computer into a little "cube", with much shorter wire lengths, and hence, latencies. We can't do this now, because that cube would literally melt in seconds form the heat.

The reality-check of all this is that many MRI machines are still cooled by liquid helium, even though superconductors that work at liquid nitrogen temperatures have been available for a while. This tells you a lot about the limitations that might restrict the application of even a hypothetical room-temperature superconductor. For example, ultra-sensitive sensors and RSFQ may not work at all, because the tiny signal quanta may be swamped by the background thermal noise. Similarly, manufacturability of wire and maximum magnetic field strength is a key requirement for a lot of applications, like MRIs and electric motors.

Personally, I suspect that the first room-temperature superconductor will be initially manufacturable in bulk only as a thin-film, so expect the first decade or two to be mostly about improved circuitry and sensors more than anything else. This might be closer than people think. For example, there's a harmless quack [] who claims to have achieved superconductivity at 28C by manufacturing extremely complex copper-based crystals as a thin layer between two different traditional copper-based superconductors. Assuming for a second that he's onto something, it gives you an idea of what might then happen with such a technology. You're never going to be making wire out of something like that, but depositing a layer a few tens of nanometers thick on a silicon wafer should be doable.

Tough to predict (2)

msobkow (48369) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465335)

It's rather tough to predict the impact of room temperature semi-conductors without knowing a lot more about the specifics of the technology.

For example, is the material suitable for long-haul power lines? Does it have the tensile strength to be deployed as multi-kilometer wiring? If it is, we can expect to see a dramatic improvement in the efficiency of power distribution, resulting in delays in the deployment of new power plants because the old ones would suddenly be delivering 10-20% more power to the home/business instead of losing it in the wiring.

Is the material suitable for fine wiring? If so, we may see some marginal improvements in the power drain of general electrical and electronic equipment.

No matter what happens in this field, we can expect that the military will be the first to apply the technology. They're really the only ones with the budget to become "early adopters" of such a shift in technology, other than research prototypes coming out of the likes of IBM.

All in all, though, I really wouldn't expect a very dramatic shift in power systems, though. Efficiency is great, but it rarely is an earth-shattering improvement.

Improving the efficiency of transmission doesn't change the speed of transmission, so it really wouldn't affect the raw computing horsepower of machines, just their power consumption. It's not like anyone has been talking about any superconductors that could replace the metal wiring layers on VLSI chips -- having a material and being able to vapour deposit or lithograph the material are two dramatically different technologies, and it could be decades after the discovery of the material before someone comes up with a practical way to use it on the microscopic scale of chips.

Personally I'm more interested in some of the "light switch" technologies that are being experimented with, because those technologies could change the fundamental physics of computing far more dramatically than reducing power consumption would.

Air hockey. (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465377)

Now without air.

Porn (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465387)

"And just as important, in what contexts would you want to see it first employed?"

What will happen (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465391)

1) It will be too expensive to use commercially for the first ten years
2) As the price comes down it will appear in boutique products that filter down from the filthy rich to the merely well-off
3) Once the price hits a certain point it will appear in every day products and energy consumption will drop.
    a) Energy costs will then skyrocket
    b) The feds will mandate an updating of the "grid"
    c) Trillions in taxes will go into adding this material to power lines
4) The cost of the material will rise once more and stabilize, bringing wealth to everyone who is already wealthy and nothing will change for the rest of us

Dire Prediction... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465485)

So far, the history of man has shown that major new techs are typically used to kill people before they are adapted into more civilian uses

Unlimited range Power Distribution (1)

lkcl (517947) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465551)

it would be world-changing, without a shadow of doubt. imagine having transatlantic cables the thickness of the present internet fibreoptic cables that distributed terawatts of power as well as information. it would not need to be high voltage, so there would be no risk of arcing.

now imagine those cables running across the world's deserts, to a massive array of solar collectors.

now imagine those cables running to deep ocean temperature-differential power stations (water 1 mile down is 3-4 centigrade lower temperature: you can get about 100 megawatts out of that).

now imagine those power generators - distributed across the world so that they continuously generated power - connected into that world-wide, world-accessible power distribution grid.

you basically would never have the problem of running out of electricity, ever. it's not to say that people in african countries would not try to shimmy up the telegraph poles with crocodile clips in order to try to filch off some power, so you'd have to take that into account and provide them with easy-to-access power sockets at ground level in order to make it unnecessary for them to try to plug themselves into what would be effectively an infinite current sink that could turn them into ash within milliseconds if they tried leeching it, but apart from that little problem you'd basically be able to solve the world's power needs at very little cost per human.

Easy (1)

inhuman_4 (1294516) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465611)

While it can be hard/impossible to predict how they will effect us in the long term, I think it is quite easy to predict what will happen in the short term.

First, if we do get room temperature superconductors working at a reasonably useful scale, they will be expensive. The first batch of any new technology is expensive because: 1) Manufacturing capacity is still being built. 2) Recovering research costs. 3) Little in the way of competition.

So any use of these superconductors will have to 1) Be used by people with large budgets. 2) Be used by people willing to take risks with unproven technology. 3) Have the technical skill and know how to actually make use of room temperature superconductors. So who fits the bill? Same people as always: 1) Military, 2) Scientific Research, 3) Very large corporations (ie. typically the ones who can get massive government contracts.).

Military: I can think of a few applications: Replacing catapults on aircraft carriers. Rail guns (massive current creates a lot of head in the wiring, not just the rails). Electronic warfare (ie. high powered radar/jammers, miniaturization). Active stealth with powerful magnets.

Scientific community: Atom smashers like the LHC could become much much cheaper if they didn't need to cool the superconductor magnets. Same thing for fusion reactors. Anything using a lot of current: ie. lasers, plasma physics, etc.

Large corporations: Power transmission lines. Those big DC super high voltage lines would be good candidates. Power substations near large power stations (especially nuclear). Maglev trains, industrial flywheels, exotic electric sports cars, aircraft (to cut down on cabling weight), industrial batteries, anything in space.

The key point is that there are many, many uses for room temperature superconductors before they get cheap enough to use in consumer goods. This is one of the technologies that can be immediately applied all over the place.

Two words: (1)

jduhls (1666325) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465615)

Quantum locking!!!!!!!

Power Suits and Luddite Paste (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465703)

Well, first we'd build Warhammer 40K power suits. Then the copper industry would attempt to sue the superconductor industry out of existence.
Then we'd paste the copper industry with the aforementioned power suits. Possibly whilst wielding sledgehammers.

DC vs AC (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465741)

In superconducting transmission lines, AC still sees impedance. It's only DC that sees zero impedance. An interesting question might be whether or not superconducting t-lines would push enough benefits in the DC direction for us to see DC t-lines.

I would want to say "maybe at the highest voltage levels but not for the lines running right into your house".

(IANAE yet.)

Superconductor batteries? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39465745)

We tend to think of superconductors primarily as infrastructure for transmission of electricity. But think about how it can be used to *store* energy! I'd really like to see an analysis in this direction - how much energy can be stored in a coil, and what would be some problems with it.

Fusion reactors (1)

Sgs-Cruz (526085) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465939)

Workable high-temperature (i.e. room-temperature) superconductors would make magnetic fusion reactors (tokamaks) a lot cheaper. This is one of the things that would be a game-changer for fusion.

Flying cars? (1)

Vingborg (141225) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465949)

If it won't facilitate flying cars by the year 2020, I'm not interested.

It would make rooms a lot colder. (1)

fizzup (788545) | more than 2 years ago | (#39465963)

Could you imagine? You'd have to collect all that condensed air...

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