See Inside June 2010

Room-temperature Superconductors

They would transform the grid--if they can exist at all

You can build a coal-fired power plant just about anywhere. Renewables, on the other hand, are finicky. The strongest winds blow across the high plains. The sun shines brightest on the desert. Transporting that energy into cities hundreds of kilometers away will be one of the great challenges of the switch to renewable energy.

The most advanced superconducting cable can move those megawatts thousands of kilometers with losses of only a few percent. Yet there is a catch: the cable must be kept in a bath of liquid nitrogen at 77 kelvins (or –196 degrees Celsius). This kind of deployment, in turn, requires pumps and refrigeration units every kilometer or so, greatly increasing the cost and complexity of superconducting cable projects.

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