Superconductors ready to ramp up for the real world
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Firms such as American Superconductor in Massachusetts and Japan's Sumitomo Electric, cleared that hurdle by designing tape-like "wires" for use in cables, motors, and devices that help utilities smooth the bumps in electricity they supply.Skip to next paragraph
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The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, is testing a device built by American Superconductor that helps the grid maintain stable voltage on the lines. If successful, the utility plans to install five of the devices. "So far, we're very pleased with the test results," says Terry Boston, TVA's executive vice president for the transmission and power supply group.
The Navy also has been a driver behind several developments in the field. It is testing one of two prototype superconducting motors it funded - a 5,000 horsepower device built by American Superconductor. A second design using conventional metal superconductors is being built by General Atomics in Torrey Pines, Calif.
In the mid-90's, the Navy took a page from the cruise-ship industry and began to hitch its propeller shafts to electric motors rather than to gas turbines - particularly on destroyers. Turbines would still be needed to generate electricity. But electric motors would spin the props.
In order for the Navy to devote more of a ship's volume to people, weapons, and electronics, "we need to get motors as compact as you can," says the ONR's Mr. Littlefield. Superconducting motors may be the answer.
Once the motor technology is in hand, the same approaches can be used to build compact superconducting generators. Those can be used to power a new generation of weapons aboard ships and aircraft, notes Florida State University researcher Steinar Dale. So-called rail guns, for example, use magnetic fields to hurl a nonexplosive projectile at speeds where its impact alone is explosive. By some estimates, a 30-inch-long rail-gun projectile could deliver up to eight times the energy in 1/10th the travel time as extended-range munitions currently under development.
Similar techniques could be applied in a less souped-up form to launch aircraft from carriers, notes Dr. Dale.
Civilian and military prototypes tested so far have been built around so-called first-generation wire. Soon, the first batch of second-generation wire - with significantly better electrical, magnetic, and mechanical properties and cheaper production costs - will be moving onto spools. American Superconductor plans to ship its first production-grade second-generation wire within the next six to nine months, says chief executive Greg Yurek. Others, including Sumitomo, are nipping at his heels.
Even before so-called 2G wire hits the streets, the push is on to develop third-generation wire that aims for even lower production costs and better performance. The reasoning is simple: "You'd better eat your own lunch, because if you don't, your competitors surely will," notes Dr. Yurek, taking a page from former Intel chief Andrew Grove.
Superconductivity is on the verge of moving into large-scale applications. Eventually, they could be used in:
• Magnetic-levitation trains. Strong superconducting magnets would be smaller and waste far less energy than conventional electromagnets.
• Supercomputers. Tiny superconductor switches might help computers attain speeds of one-thousand-trillion operations per second.
• E-bombs. Superconductor-derived magnetic fields create a pulse to disable electronic gear. Such a device was used in 2003 when US forces attacked an Iraqi broadcast facility.