Top 10 Uses of Superconductivity Powering Our Future
By Colin Hicks, Toptenz, 1 July 2016.
By Colin Hicks, Toptenz, 1 July 2016.
As a species, we have experienced the wonders of electricity for roughly the past 100 years. Electricity changed modern day civilization forever, without which there would have never been the industrial revolution. The use of electricity in our everyday lives has become so common place that little thought is given to the fact that it has only been in existence less than one hundred of one percent in the continuum of modern humans.
A follow-up discovery to electricity in the early 20th century was superconductivity, which is the complete loss of electrical resistance and displacement of magnetic fields when certain materials are cooled to a critical temperature.
Superconductivity has come a long way since its discovery in the early 20th century led to the Nobel Prize in physics in 1987.
There are numerous applications of superconductivity being developed and implemented and it is these applications that once again will change our civilization far into the future in the same way that electricity did in the 20th century.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is a joint venture involving seven bodies of government. ITER is currently one of the most expensive public scientific projects in history. The goal of ITER is to prove fusion is viable by getting more energy out than putting in. ITER is being built in France and will be the largest tokamak ever built. A tokamak is a device using a magnetic field to confine a plasma in the shape of a torus. The amount of temperatures ITER plans to induce inside the tokamak will be between 150-300 million degrees Celsius. At those temperatures, the isotopes of hydrogen (e.g. deuterium) can be fused turning into one of the four states of matter (e.g. plasma). The tokamak will require large superconducting coils to create an immense magnetic field to contain the plasma. The challenge that lies ahead for ITER is vast because there are other means to produce fusion in addition to the tokamak. It is likely that ITER will continues on its path to become operational by the late 2020’s and will demonstrate that fusion energy is attainable. However, companies like General Fusion and Lockheed Martin will likely bring fusion energy to the commercial market before ITER ever gets turned on.
9. Quantum Train
Magnetic levitation (maglev) is on the verge of being adopted in many new modes of transport, but few are adopting HTSM (High Temperature Superconducting Maglev). Although maglev can be created by a number of different processes, the most promising are the companies that are taking full advantage of the Meisnner Effect. The Meisnner Effect allows trains to float on a permanent magnetic guide way. There is currently a lot of buzz around Japan’s proposal to build a HTSM train which could achieve 600 km per hour. Japan’s HTSM train developed by JR Central has its limitations due to extremely expensive cost but the Japanese government intends to develop a superconducting maglev line between Tokyo to Nagoya costing well over US$200 billion until completion. A more cost effective HTSM train is known as the Quantum Train. A Quantum Train being proposed by the Dutch would modify existing railway and would cut cost significantly compared to the Japanese proposal. The Quantum Train intends to exceed 3000 km per hour due to the adoption of patented evacuated tube transport.
When a patient slides into a modern Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine, superconductivity is what drives the medical imaging technique used in radiology. MRI scanners use magnetic fields and radio waves to form images of the body. The technique is widely used in hospitals for medical diagnosis, staging of disease and for follow-up without exposure to ionizing radiation. MRI’s use strong magnetic fields and require superconducting coils that are cooled via liquid helium. MRI’s are certainly the most familiar application of superconductivity in the modern world. MRI’s have made a myriad of diagnosis varying from malignant tumors, schizophrenia, heart disease, and so much more. It is clear that use of MRI machines have proved to the world that superconductivity has immense benefits for the wellbeing of mankind. MRI machines in hospitals across the globe have saved millions of lives, all in thanks to superconductivity.
7. HTS Motor
High Temperature Superconductivity (HTS) is the driving force in the field of superconductivity. Historically, superconductor materials required very cold critical temperatures only achieved with the use of expensive cryogens such as liquid helium that operate at only a few degrees above Kelvin (absolute zero). HTS materials operate at a much higher critical temperature (e.g. 70 K) and require much cheaper cryogens such as liquid nitrogen. The typical motor requires lots of copper wire, materials and are highly inefficient when compared to an HTS motor. It is no surprise that the USA Navy is paving the way by being the first to apply HTS motors to their armada which will provide savings in energy costs while taking efficiency to a new level.
The future of cities is leading to the Megacity; super dense populations of over 10 million residents or more. High Rises will abound and the way people are transported within these “walled cities” will change. The design of the current day elevator has not materially changed for over 160 years and has limited architects from building new, bold and completely different shapes for high rises. The use of new magnetically levitating elevators for skyscrapers will completely change architectural design for high rises going forward. Superconducting elevators will allow Megacities to flourish and will allow for theoretical Mega Structures to reach well over a mile high into the atmosphere. Superconducting elevators take advantage of the Meisner effect and use a series of Linear Induction Motors to accelerate the magnetically levitating elevators cabins vertically and horizontally. The world tallest building in Dubai, Burj Khalifa, will seem trivial in height in the coming decades.
It costs a lot of money to send anything into space, billions are spent yearly to send satellites into LEO and the International Space Station (ISS) has exceeded over US$125 billion in costs. And because of cost, StarTram is still considered by overwhelming majority as unfeasible in today’s world. But StarTram would make it possible to send cargo and passengers into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Dr. James Powell, co-inventor of StarTram, is considered way ahead of his time and a true “All Star” in the world of superconductivity. Dr. Powell invented superconducting maglev in the late 60’s and his contributions to superconductivity are substantial to say the least.
The principles behind StarTram involves 100’s of miles of connected tubes evacuated of air that would reach 14 miles into the atmosphere. A SkyTram space portal would be located at a mountain range a few miles above sea level (e.g. Mongolia) to negate some of the cost of connecting the tubes from sea level to 20 miles high. SkyTram’s tubes will be lined with permanent magnets while SkyTram’s superconducting maglev pods will be able to accelerate through the evacuated tubes (no air resistance) at well over Mach 20 to reach LEO. The estimated cost of SkyTram is over US$60 billion and it would take massive coordination, both political and business in nature, to make SkyTram a reality. As a species, we have always been pondering what lies across the vastness between the stars and it is absolutely critical as a species to survive to get off this ‘Pale Blue Dot’. StarTram would greatly reduce the cost of space travel and would lead to the building of starships such as the superconductive EmDrive which would allow civilization to travel between the stars.
4. EM Drive
Quite possible the greatest discovery in propulsion systems in the history of mankind is the implications of the EM Drive. The EM Drive was Invented by British engineer Roger Shawyer in 2000 and has been shunned by the scientific community for over a decade because the EM Drive indicates it’s breaking Newton’s 3rd law of thermodynamic, the conservation of momentum. However, Chinese scientists in 2010 and scientist from NASA in 2014 confirmed Roger’s EM Drive that by converting electricity into electromagnetic microwaves inside a specially designed chamber exhibited measurable thrust. The ramifications of the EM Drive means that no propellant is needed to propel a satellite or spaceship across the medium of space, just a source of energy (e.g. radioactive materials).
Despite the skepticism and controversy the EM Drive has brought upon the scientific community, the superconducting EM Drive version would allow increase in thrust efficiency by a huge margin. Star Trek spaceships powered by EM Drives could reach 60% the speed of light after a few years of constant thrust. The physics behind the EM Drive is so revolutionary that the superconductive version is years away and the EM Drive wouldn’t be limited to space explorations. Roger says it best, “superconducting EM Drives will be ‘powerful enough to lift a large car’ (under Earths gravity).”
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), one of the most expensive completed scientific experimental project in history, has brought the discovery of the Higgs Boson. As a result of the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the Noble prize in physics was awarded to Peter Higgs & Francois Englert and has brought some closure to the Standard Model in particle physics. Multiple experiments are being done at the LHC to bridge the gap between the world of quantum mechanics and the world of general relativity. The role of superconductivity for the particle accelerator has been crucial for LHC’s success. In order for the LHC to accelerate protons close to the speed of light, strong magnetic fields and a vacuumed environment are needed to keep the protons on their trajectory. High levels of electrical current are needed to accelerate the protons to high speeds and superconductive coils allow for the electrical currents to flow without additional energy and zero resistance.
In the decade to come, China proposes to build a much larger particle accelerator than the LHC - over 54 km in diameter compared to LHC’s 17 km diameter. The role of ‘atom smashers’ will play an important role to our understanding of the observable universe. Particle accelerators are capable of producing anti-matter, at a current cost of US$62.5 trillion per gram, and perhaps the cost of anti-matter will follow Moors Law in the coming half century to allow for practical use of anti-matter for numerous applications.
2. HTS Power Cables
Currently, almost all transmission of electrical current is via copper wire. In the USA alone, 6% of electricity is lost in transmission according to the EIA. That 6% equates to 10’s of billions of dollars ‘flushed down the toilet’ due to poor transmission of electricity. The case is a lot worse for developing countries like India. In 2000 India reported a 30% loss of electrical current in transition across their utility lines but has subsequently made improvements and increased the efficiency of transmitting electricity to 18%. A much more efficient way of transmission is through the use of HTS power cables, which provides 0% loss of electrical current during transmission. High Temperature Superconductors, such as HTS Power Cables, use much cheaper cryogens like liquid nitrogen (Nitrogen is 78% of earth atmosphere). A gallon of liquid nitrogen is 4 times cheaper than a gallon of milk. HTS power cables have become economically viable.
HTS power cables also require a lot less material than copper wire to transmit equal amount of current. In the USA, the DOE has multiple HTS power cable project across the country to increase the grids efficiency, reduce carbon footprint, and save money. The case for HTS power cables to be adopted across the globe is strong. Germany has tested the world longest HTS power cable line of 1 km and has worked without a glitch. The most mind-boggling notion surrounding HTS power cables, combined with Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies (ET3), is its capabilities to store well over 15 TW (terawatts) of energy on a global scale.
1. Space Travel on Earth
The future of transport is on the verge of becoming a ‘physical world wide web’ of evacuated tubes (ETs) via ET3 (Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies). The case for tube transport had reached its tipping point when Elon Musk met with the ET3 team 2 weeks before he made his Hyperloop announcement 3 years ago. ET3 has been 25 years in the making. ET3’s first patent was in 1999 and dozens more have been developed since then.
ET3 involves a series of factors: evacuating 1.5 diameter tubes of air via vacuum pumps, linear electrical motors, and most importantly HTS superconductors and permanent magnets. Car-sized capsules enter the evacuated tubes via airlocks and each capsule holds a cryostat that cools the HTS material on each capsule. A few gallons of liquid nitrogen could keep an ET3 capsule levitated for 4 hours.
So much attention has brought upon the Hyperloop yet ET3 has gone through over 15 years of R&D and is ready to be built right now. ET3 also goes by Space Travel On Earth because it brings ‘space-like conditions down to earth’ (e.g. an evacuated environment is a void with only a few particles per million; like outer space). The implication of Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) on the global scale will bring the world ever more connected. ETT capsules (800 lbs per) transporting food, waste, oil, freight, data, persons, energy, etc. will be able to travel over 400 mph in local Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) evacuated tube networks while international routes could reach 4,000 mph. Once Space Travel on Earth is implemented, it will have a far reaching impact on the world economy and would literally double the standard of living for all.
Top image: StarTram. Credit: Startram.
[Source: Toptenz. Edited. Some links added.]