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Science Technology

Man-Made Material Pushes the Bounds of Superconductivity 133

Posted by samzenpus
from the greased-lightning dept.
An anonymous reader writes "A multi-university team of researchers has artificially engineered a unique multilayer material that could lead to breakthroughs in both superconductivity research and in real-world applications. The researchers can tailor the material, which seamlessly alternates between metal and oxide layers, to achieve extraordinary superconducting properties — in particular, the ability to transport much more electrical current than non-engineered materials."
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Man-Made Material Pushes the Bounds of Superconductivity

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  • Resistance (Score:5, Funny)

    by colinrichardday (768814) <colin.day.6@hotmail.com> on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:09AM (#43064939)

    Shall we call this material Borgium? Resistance is useless!

    • by fyngyrz (762201) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:15AM (#43064949) Homepage Journal

      The question -- as it always is -- is: What is the operating temperature range for this material? Because if it's still "refrigerate or die", applications will not expand much beyond where they are today.

      If we get superconductors we can use as power transmission lines in normal environmental temperature ranges, that'll be a serious game-changer.

      • by i.am.delf (1665555) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:24AM (#43064989)
        The application I can see is stronger magnets. Right now the superconducting magnets we have are limited by the amount of current they can carry before they start misbehaving. The crappy part is that while we have superconductors which work at liquid nitrogen temperatures, they can't carry a whole lot of current. This leads to MRIs and NMRs using liquid helium cooled magnets which cost a ton of money to maintain. If this material can operate at LN2 temperatures and give the current density of the liquid helium magnets, they will have an amazing product on their hands.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Not to mention, the "high temperature" superconductors we have now can't be easily made into wire for winding into magnets.

          High temperature is relative here, they mean liquid nitrogen temperatures.

      • by dbIII (701233)
        More current is already a game changer. Bulk liquid nitrogen is cheaper than milk, so there's still a few applications this can be used for while work progresses towards room temperature superconductivity.
      • by Guppy (12314) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:40AM (#43065045)

        The question -- as it always is -- is: What is the operating temperature range for this material? Because if it's still "refrigerate or die", applications will not expand much beyond where they are today.

        I don't have a subscription to Nature Materials, but squinting at the thumbnail graphs available for free, looks like the transition temperature is somewhere around 17-24 Kelvin. As far as I can tell, main advance here is in improving Critical Current Density and Irreversibility Field limits.

        Also, tag for story summary: whereisthefuckingpaper [nature.com]

      • by Drishmung (458368) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:46AM (#43065073)

        The question -- as it always is -- is: What is the operating temperature range for this material?

        They don't say. The most we know from the article is

        its effective operating temperature is higher than that of conventional superconducting materials such as niobium, lead or mercury.

        which means higher than 9.3K (Nb critical temperature).

        The article also says:

        Currently, even unconventional high-temperature superconductors operate below -369 degrees Fahrenheit.

        or about 50K. Still below the magic 77K of liquid Nitrogen at which point things become economically interesting---and I can't see any statement in the article that the substance is even as good as, never mind better than 50K, although there is an implication that it is.

        All in all, the article says remarkably little, at some length.

        • by PerMolestiasEruditio (1118269) on Monday March 04, 2013 @02:55AM (#43065467)

          There are quite a few other relatively cheap options below 77K. In particular using vacuum to lower the temperature of liquid Nitrogen is pretty easy and gets you to 64K with the nitrogen still a liquid. Same trick with liquid Oxygen (also dirt cheap) gets you to 55K and liquid Neon is about 25K (and when we run out of easily mineable Helium it will be cheaper than helium). Liquid Hydrogen can be used at down to 14K using evacuation (20K at atmospheric pressure).

          • by jcr (53032)

            In particular using vacuum to lower the temperature of liquid Nitrogen is pretty easy and gets you to 64K with the nitrogen still a liquid.

            Wait, what? I would expect lower pressure to drop the boiling point of LN2, so how does that get you a colder liquid?

            -jcr

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Not true, even a liquid nitrogen, or dry ice, superconductor that can carry large current will have an enormous effect on technology. It is simplistic to think that power transmission is the major application. It is not even an important one in the grand scheme of things. Even at that level it would be possible to have an MRI in every doctors office. If we get to -20, it means devices that can work with normal compressor based refrigeration, which means the technology can be anywhere even in the home.

        • by plover (150551) on Monday March 04, 2013 @02:18AM (#43065335) Homepage Journal

          Power transmission is the easy one to see a payoff for, though. I've seen various sources claiming power line losses run anywhere from 7% to 17%. Also consider the energy we use shipping trains full of coal from the mines across the country to the generating plants located near the consumers. Superconductive lines could enable them to build power plants near the mines and push the current over the grid.

          Even if the tech was expensive to install on a per mile basis, if they could swap out the existing lines for superconducting lines, they wouldn't have to sign new land leasing deals for extra towers. Superconductors would enable them to shove 10X or 100X the power over the grid without having drastic changes elsewhere.

          That's one of the biggest limiting factors to wind generation today, by the way. The grid across the sparsely populated windy plains was originally designed to carry just a few tens of megawatts into a region that doesn't have large industrial plants and doesn't see a high demand. It was never designed to carry gigawatts of power out of the area. New windmills are actually straining the existing grid. An efficient distribution network would let those prairie windmills sell power all the way out to the coasts.

          • by icebike (68054)

            But the cost of such a distribution system might exceed the 10 percent loss in the current system. Especially when you consider the need for exotic materials.

            And 10 percent is the average today, but that could be reduced by piping gas closer to the high electric consumption areas rather than pushing electrons down the current lines. The gas pipe line would have less loss, might be cheaper, even adding in the cost of a new gas plant. It would reduce grid dependency while leaving the grid in place.

            http://w [tinyrevolution.com]

          • by symbolset (646467) *
            The big deal with wind power right now is that sometimes the wind doesn't blow - even in the best wind power locations. The answer for that issue is a mode of baseload power that can respond to the lack dynamically. Nuclear isn't it because it requires too much lead time. The answer is geothermal, which can overproduce its capacity for a considerable time before depleting its resource and can be very responsive to changes in need.
            • by drinkypoo (153816)

              Read up on Calpine at The Geysers before you decide geothermal is a good idea.

              Wind belongs offshore, and on top of mountains and the like. Not everywhere is a good fit. That doesn't negate the concept.

              The problem that the wind doesn't blow shouldn't be a problem any more. These days the biggest industrial power users only have a handful of people on the floor, to unjam the machines. Let them use the power when it is produced.

            • The better answer is to use the excess power from the wind farms when their production exceeds the immediate need to pump water into reservoirs and spin up flywheels, which would then be tapped when demand exceeds what the wind farms can produce at the moment. We have the technology now to do these things, what we do not have is the tax incentives to get them built. In short, the problem is not technical, it is political.

              It probably doesn't help that pumping water and turning flywheels are ancient technolo

          • by wesley96 (934306) on Monday March 04, 2013 @06:07AM (#43065999) Homepage
            Well-maintained power grid can have transmission loss of around 4% as in the case of South Korea and Japan.

            I think this is a practical limit as far as conventional conductors go. Unless the superconductors are ridiculously cost-effective to install and maintain, the benefits will never materialize - i.e. become a game changer.

            To put this into perspective, let's try this. A relatively small country like South Korea still has more than ten thousand miles of transmission lines. Say you replace all that and achieve 4% more power.

            Since the installed power capacity is around 70GW, that means about 3GW, or about three regular nuclear plants. I highly doubt completely redoing the existing transmission infrastructure with conventional means is possible with the cost of building three nuclear plants, let alone a superconducting one. And I haven't even got to the current limits yet.

            This is why, if there's a superconductor breakthrough, I think it'll have more impact on medical uses rather than raw power transmission.


            Disclaimer: I work in the electric power industry.
            • Well-maintained power grid can have transmission loss of around 4% as in the case of South Korea and Japan. I think this is a practical limit as far as conventional conductors go. Unless the superconductors are ridiculously cost-effective to install and maintain, the benefits will never materialize - i.e. become a game changer. To put this into perspective, let's try this. A relatively small country like South Korea still has more than ten thousand miles of transmission lines. Say you replace all that and achieve 4% more power. Since the installed power capacity is around 70GW, that means about 3GW, or about three regular nuclear plants. I highly doubt completely redoing the existing transmission infrastructure with conventional means is possible with the cost of building three nuclear plants, let alone a superconducting one. And I haven't even got to the current limits yet. This is why, if there's a superconductor breakthrough, I think it'll have more impact on medical uses rather than raw power transmission. Disclaimer: I work in the electric power industry.

              If the superconductor material was effective at normal temperatures and was not too expensive per mile (ROI of 5-10 years) it certainly would. The new cable would simply be patched in on existing lines when those needed to be replaced and used in all new lines. It absolutely would not be cost effective to do a full infrastructure replacement but if lines have to be replaced then you are not incurring extra labor cost for replacement.

            • I highly doubt completely redoing the existing transmission infrastructure with conventional means is possible with the cost of building three nuclear plants, let alone a superconducting one. And I haven't even got to the current limits yet.

              Not all at once, but the thing about almost any infrastructure, it gets old, and needs replacement eventually.
              If in X years from now, the was a room-temperature superconductor that was roughly the cost of the old conductor (and could be used in parallel), then eventuall

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            I've seen various sources claiming power line losses run anywhere from 7% to 17%.

            And I've seen it claimed that in the USA, power line losses amount to about 5%. Most of the loss isn't in transmission but in conversion.

            • Most of the loss isn't in transmission but in conversion.

              That's good, because it's easier to keep a few thousand cubic feet or less of transformer cool than a hundred miles of conductor.

              • by drinkypoo (153816)

                That's good, because it's easier to keep a few thousand cubic feet or less of transformer cool than a hundred miles of conductor.

                Will it be as astounding as one would naturally hope given superconductors still suffer inductive loss?

          • Superconductive lines could enable them to build power plants near the mines and push the current over the grid.

            Not just mines, but any 'source' of energy. Imagine extreme-scale use of wasteland in the Southwest for solar energy collection. (Setup some of those plants over the old nuclear test ranges, even the most extreme environmentalists would have a hard time objecting to 'damaging' the land there. Granted, worker safety is a concern, but you get the idea) Renewable energy's biggest problem is energ

        • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

          by BlueStrat (756137)

          It is simplistic to think that power transmission is the major application.

          If a practical (not requiring extreme/complex/large/heavy systems) superconducting electrical conductor material became commonly available at reasonable costs, count on it being used to make powerful and practical electromagnetic railgun-type rifles/pistols, as well as larger weapons systems whose performance and lethality can far-outstrip similar-class conventional firearms.

          Imagine a gunpowder-less fully automatic rifle-like weapon that can make Swiss-cheese of a Bradley FV's armor, take down combat helico

          • by Guspaz (556486)

            You're still bound by the laws of physics; you'll only get so much energy out of a projectile while producing a certain amount of recoil.

            I suppose you could concentrate the energy into a smaller area by firing a smaller projectile at a higher velocity...

            • by BlueStrat (756137)

              You're still bound by the laws of physics; you'll only get so much energy out of a projectile while producing a certain amount of recoil.

              I suppose you could concentrate the energy into a smaller area by firing a smaller projectile at a higher velocity...

              Yes, I'm aware of the limitations imposed by Newton. Still, as you say, a small projectile at hyper-velocity is quite possible. Look at the Barret Arms M107 series of .50-cal semi-automatic rifles.

              I also find it curious that my OP was modded "Flamebait". These weapons already exist in experimental form, the discoveries mentioned in TFS will surely be incorporated into them if at all practical/possible. Could it be that someone is afraid they'll get a firearms ban enacted only to find that conventional firea

              • by BitZtream (692029)

                Yes, I'm aware of the limitations imposed by Newton

                Newton is not a god. He imposes no laws. He learned of the laws of the universe, he didn't create physics.

          • Railguns still have to be powered. Gunpowder carries a lot more energy and especially power per unit volume than any battery I'm aware of.
      • If we get superconductors we can use as power transmission lines in normal environmental temperature ranges, that'll be a serious game-changer.

        Read the summary again: "...in particular, the ability to transport much more electrical current than non-engineered materials."

        To me, this caveat must mean that it can only do as well, or worse, than current engineered materials for transporting electrical current (whatever their definition of "engineered" means to them).

        So if you go by the summary description alone (which as a Slashdotter, I often do, since I'm often too lazy to read the actual articles), it's no game-changer at all.

      • In reading the comments section of the linked article I gleaned that the material is not superconductive at temps above 25 kelvin.
      • by grumbel (592662)

        How difficulty is it actually to reach the temperatures used for super-conductors in a every day setting (say for cooling a CPU)? Maybe we don't need a breakthrough in super conducting materials, but just better refrigerators?

      • If we get superconductors we can use as power transmission lines in normal environmental temperature ranges, that'll be a serious game-changer.
        That would in no way be a game changer.
        Transmission losses are so low it is not worth it to use super conductors except in very rare circumstances.

      • The question -- as it always is -- is: What is the operating temperature range for this material? Because if it's still "refrigerate or die", applications will not expand much beyond where they are today.

        If we get superconductors we can use as power transmission lines in normal environmental temperature ranges, that'll be a serious game-changer.

        Methinks you meant Vogonium.

      • My guess is it is still "refrigerate or die" but the article is very confusing on this subject as it mentions that their material is superconductive at temps above those that niobium, lead, and mercury are (niobium being around 10 Kelven and the highest in the list) but they also talk about other similar unconventional super conductors which become super conductive around 50 Kelven. So using any of their numbers it would seem that these aren't anything special on the temp front but where they seem to shine
    • Re:Resistance (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Greyfox (87712) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:15AM (#43064951) Homepage Journal
      Wouldn't that be Vogoninium?
    • by alienzed (732782)
      We could call it Trainium... All Aboard!
    • the actual line is Resistance is futile!

      but considering the makeup of this material, perhaps the line should be Resistance is ductile!

    • I just assumed they were talking about Frosty Piss' fecal matter.

    • I think you have it confused with Vogonium.

    • by Evtim (1022085)

      More like Vogonium...

    • by fatphil (181876)
      Vogonium, surely?
      • by fatphil (181876)
        Dalekium, even.

        010 (production code k) /The Dalek Invasion of Earth/, episode 2 /The Daleks/

        DALEK: Stop! I can hear you. I have heard many similar words... from leaders of your different races. All of them were destroyed. I warn you: resistance is useless.

        Having said that, the Cybermen seem more keen on the phrase than the Daleks:

        phil@geespaz:Who$ grep -i "resistance is" *.html
        010-2-The_Daleks.html: I warn you: resistance is useless.
        010-2-The_Daleks.html: DOCTOR: Resistance is useless?
        029-4-The_Tenth_Planet
  • by Anonymous Coward

    What is this non-engineered material you speak of? If there is something that we don't have a stress strain curve for, let's get the sucker to an Instron machine right away.

  • by Dr. Spork (142693) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:36AM (#43065025)
    They stacked atoms in a very impressive way, but they don't actually say what their fancy new material can do. What's the critical temperature, guys? Why was that not the first question? How much current can it carry compared to other Type II superconductors? If it's an improvement by 3C, it's not a breakthrough. If it's 30C, you'll definitely have my attention.
  • by mark-t (151149) <markt&lynx,bc,ca> on Monday March 04, 2013 @01:03AM (#43065151) Journal
    The lack of specifics about the material's properties, such as actual operating range, and in particular, whether or not the material exhibits all of the characteristic phenomena that actual superconductors do suggests to me that this article is about something that has only been theoretically designed, and not actually built and its properties analyzed in a lab.
    • by jfengel (409917)

      The lack of specifics comes from reading about it via a news aggregator in the popular press. Going to the horses's mouth gets you all you could possibly want:

      http://www.nature.com/nmat/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nmat3575.html [nature.com]

      • by mark-t (151149)
        Not exactly all I could possibly want there... as the article seems to be behind a paywall, and thus no more informative on the matter than the article that was mentioned in the summary.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    My family used to own a superconductor mine but we had to close it down due to competition from synthetic superconductors... I guess that is the way the cookie crumbles...

  • I am tired of hearing "could lead to breakthroughs in ..." So I lean towards extraordinary evidence
  • The point is they have "engineered" a material to suppositively gives it better properties. This suggests that they are closer to solving the superconducting riddle, not that they have solved it. Maybe when they apply this method to other materials they can get better properties. This doesn't say anything for manufacturability either, but if they do find a material that works at room temperature, somebody will figure out a way to manufacture it.

  • does it blend?

  • Topological Superconductors - 300K and higher, but still not usable

    The relevant google search [google.com].
    A relevant result from Joint Quantum Institute [umd.edu]

    Ultraconductors got killed in the 2008 market crash. Had they not got killed, they were making superconductors out of plastic, they called it Ultraconductor [chavaenergy.com]. (Not to be confused with the speaker cables of the same name). This stuff conducted at room temperature a million times better than silver! I have no doubt they could have done it, had the economy not killed them

    • by EdZ (755139) on Monday March 04, 2013 @07:56AM (#43066327)

      Ultraconductors got killed in the 2008 market crash. Had they not got killed, they were making superconductors out of plastic, they called it Ultraconductor [chavaenergy.com]. (Not to be confused with the speaker cables of the same name). This stuff conducted at room temperature a million times better than silver! I have no doubt they could have done it, had the economy not killed them.

      A viable room-temperature superconductor (even if only unidirectional) would be so useful that I can't believe that the '2008 market crash' was the only factor keeping them from market. Heck, that's Nobel-prize-worthy research if they can prove how it works.

      With patents to back it up rather than peer-reviewed papers, this squarely into 'extraordinary claims without extraordinary results' land.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        A patent in no way shape or form means it works, or it works the way they say it does, or is even useful. It could be all of those, but there are enough patents on perpetual motion devices granted that I automatically assume a patent is utterly worthless unless demonstrated otherwise.

      • Hell even if they can't figure out how it works the simple fact that if it did work (in only one direction so go DC power) would mean they would have more money than god in fairly short order. This seems to smell of those stories you hear that are usually 4th or 5th hand of someone who invented a carburetor in the 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s (In about 10 years you can add the 80s to that list) and put it on some big pig of a car [wikipedia.org] and it got between 100 and 500 mpg and produced as much or more power than it did ori
    • by brianerst (549609)

      The "Learn" menu of Chava Energy consists of "Zero Point Energy", "Room Temperature Superconductors" and "Nikola Tesla".

      I think I know exactly why Chava Energy went under and it's not the 2008 market crash.

Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth. -- Nero Wolfe

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