Superconductivity, Recent Almost Breakthrough

By Timothy Perez, NERC Reliability Specialist

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the discovery of a room temperature superconductor. If such a material was discovered, this could have profound implications on the electric industry. First, to get a better understanding of this topic let’s talk about conductors. Conductors are materials that allow the flow of electrical current with little resistance. Metals typically are good examples of conductors, with copper and aluminum being widely used. For example, transmission lines are often made of ACSR, or aluminum conductor steel reinforced. While conductors offer low resistance to current, there is still some resistance to be taken into consideration. As current flows through a line and encounters resistance, some of the electrical energy is converted to heat known as I2R losses. This reduces efficiency.  One reason AC is the standard technology used in power transmission is due to the ability to transform AC to higher voltages. With higher voltages, less current is required to transmit power, thus better efficiency can be achieved.
Superconductors are a material that has zero resistance to current flow below a specific temperature. However, the temperatures required to achieve superconductivity are quite low. An example of this is La-Ba-Cu oxide which exhibits superconductivity at 17.9 K or -427 F. Obviously, this would be impossible with current technology to apply widespread to the transmission system. The benefits of superconductivity in power transmission though would be great, however. Power lines would offer no resistance to current, increasing efficiency. The need to step up voltage for transmission could be mitigated, saving huge costs on transformers. More efficient power transmission would also mean power plants would be able to transmit more of the power generated, increasing plant efficiency, and potentially reducing emissions. Superconducting transmission lines would increase the capacity of the lines while reducing potential line sag and the faults associated with that. With the ability to transmit more power, line capacity concerns could be eliminated.
When South Korea’s Quantum Energy Research Center announced that their material LK-99 was a room temperature superconductor, the news spread rapidly throughout the internet and scientific circles. Finally, a room temperature conductor was found. The implications to the power industry, electronics, and even transportation would be massive. Alas, it seems the work done by the South Korean team has not been able to be replicated. Thus, this has shown that this new material LK-99 is not the room temperature superconductor as it was made out to be. Outside of their study being described as sloppy, other entities have concluded that it is indeed not a room temperature superconductor. The technological revolution held by such a material will have to wait.
Do not be crestfallen however, scientist and engineers are still working diligently on the topic of superconductivity. Materials, such as Lanthanum Hydrides, placed under pressure have shown that the temperature required to induce superconductivity can be raised. Though currently this requires immense pressure on the scale of 100,000’s pounds. However as material science continues to advance, society becomes one step closer to finding the elusive ambient temperature superconductor. The future is bright with potential, as this new technology will revolutionize the power industry.