Electric breakthrough goes commercial

Utilities and even the Navy are snapping up new and highly efficient superconductors.

Twenty years after their much ballyhooed discovery, high-tech materials capable of delivering 150 times the electricity of conventional wire are starting to push into the commercial market.

They promise to make generators, industrial motors, and even power lines far more efficient as the technology becomes more affordable. At least eight new cable projects already are under way in the United States, Europe, China, South Korea, Japan, and Mexico. This month, a leading US innovator in the field will shove out the factory door its first commercial product using the technology, which will help the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) keep its grid stable.

"It's been a long time coming, a real marathon, but it's exciting because we're seeing the promise become reality," says the firm's president, Greg Yurek, of American Superconductor Corp. in Westborough, Mass.

Only about a dozen companies worldwide specialize in the technology – high-temperature superconductors (HTS) that can deliver electricity with nearly no resistance to the current. Besides ASC, two are based in the US: SuperPower Inc., a subsidiary of Royal Philips Electronics, and MetOx.

"It's not just R&D anymore," says Trudy Lehner, a spokeswoman for SuperPower. "It's clearly moving into a commercial stage."

This year, ASC has seen orders soar for its HTS wire. In September, a Korean research institute ordered 22,000 meters of it. Later this month, ASC will send the US Navy in Philadelphia a superconducting motor made with HTS wire for its newest warship – a motor less than half the size and one-third the weight of a copper-based motor.

"The market right now is much more poised for this type of technology than what we would have seen just a few years ago," says Neal Elliott, industrial program director for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a Washington advocacy group.

Domestically, HTS wire has been featured in demonstration projects in Columbus, Ohio, and Albany, N.Y. In March, a half-mile of ASC's HTS wire is expected to be installed by the Long Island Power Authority. With the US electric-power industry poised for long-term growth, tens of billions of dollars will be spent to improve grid reliability – including more HTS products, industry analysts say.

Scientists have known since 1911 that some materials became superconductors when cooled to a certain temperature. But to gain such efficiencies, they had to cool them to nearly the lowest known temperature in the universe – hardly practical outside the lab. In 1986, two IBM researchers in Switzerland discovered a ceramic oxide material that was superconductive at much higher temperatures (a still chilly -395 degrees). The high-temperature superconductor was born.

Instead of requiring costly liquid helium for cooling, the breakthrough led to materials that could be cooled with far more common and cheaper liquid nitrogen. Superconductors moved out of the physics lab and into other applications.

Now Dr. Elliott and others say superconductors may be poised to finally leap from high-cost experimental projects into products with wide appeal to industry.

Driven by the use of computers, the Internet, and telecommunications, the nation is increasingly shifting toward electricity as its energy of choice. In 1970, it accounted for 25 percent of US power use; today, it accounts for 40 percent, says the Electric Power Research Institute.

At the same time, however, an increasingly creaky electric grid infrastructure has not kept up. After the Northeast blackout of Aug. 14, 2003, it was determined that high demand had drained a little known but critical element called "reactive power" from the grid, making it unstable.

ASC's new SuperVAR machine – which is being shipped to the TVA this month – is more efficient than traditional capacitors at smoothing out power surges and filling the demand for reactive power. The growth of wind power, which generates electricity intermittently depending on the wind, appears to be a hot growth market for superconducting voltage regulators.

"The future for superconductors is good, but really looks like more of a niche market in the utility industry," says Alison Silverstein, an independent utility industry consultant. "You're going to see these devices in specific applications, where reactive power is needed at substations, or in urban applications where utility tunnels are really crowded – or to help regulate wind power."

That may change if the economics improve. On the basis of cost per unit of power transmitted, first-generation HTS wire is twice to three times as expensive as copper cable, depending on the application. By 2010, Yurek claims ASC's second-generation wire should have roughly the same price performance as copper.

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