President Joe Biden appeared at the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow last week, and Democrats in Congress are debating a bill that would invest more than half a trillion into fighting climate change.
If humanity is going to win the fight against climate change, we’re going to need to start generating all of our electricity from renewable energy as soon as possible. Solar, wind, hydroelectric power and more can get us there, but there are still some roadblocks we’ll need to deal with along the way.
Renewable energy has what’s often called an “intermittency” problem. That refers to the fact you can’t generate much solar power when the sun’s not out; just as you can’t generate wind power when there’s nothing blowing outside your window. Grid-scale batteries can help address intermittency by storing power when conditions are right for generating renewable energy so it can be used when conditions aren’t ideal, but the grid-scale batteries we use today can only power your home for hours not days. Battery technology is improving every year, but there’s still work to be done.
What would truly revolutionize the energy sector is if renewable energy that was being generated at high capacities in one region could be diverted to a region where not much energy is being generated at all, but power lines lose a lot of energy along the way. If we could develop power lines that don’t lose energy, it would solve a lot of problems, and we’re getting closer to being able to do just that.
“This technology could bring about societal change.”
The solution to this problem could lie with something called superconductivity. This is when you’re able to make electricity pass through materials without any energy loss.
As things stand, we’ve only been able to make superconductivity work in a practical way at extremely cold temperatures. The materials we’ve used lose their electrical resistance when they reach temperatures below 450 degrees Fahrenheit. On a maglev train, for example, liquid helium is used to cool a niobium-titanium alloy that then becomes superconductive and produces the magnetic field that levitates and propels the train. When you’re able to achieve superconductivity, the material expels these magnetic fields.
If we can find a way to achieve superconductivity at room temperature, then we could unleash the limitless amount of energy transfer superconductivity allows without the need for large amounts of coolants that take up space and add to the overall cost of utilizing this technology. When we’re talking about trains, that means high-speed rail could see a major speed boost. This would also revolutionize energy transfer and storage.
Here’s the good news: We’ve found a way to do it. Here’s the bad: We’ve only been able to do it by putting materials under tremendous amounts of pressure.
A study published in the journal Nature in October of last year demonstrated how superconductivity can be achieved at room temperature under the right conditions. The researchers were able to develop a superconductor that functions at 58 degrees Fahrenheit. However, as the New York Times noted, it only works at pressures about as high as what you find close to Earth’s core. Even so, this was a massive accomplishment that gets us closer to being able to produce superconductors that work at room temperature, which ideally won’t require a ton of pressure.
Ashkan Salamat, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and one of the authors of the study, tells The News Station he’s excited about what his team has been able to accomplish so far.
“Our work on the first report of room temperature superconductivity, demonstrated in a carbonaceous sullied hydride, revealed that these remarkable quantum states can exist at habitual temperatures but required very high pressures to stabilize,” Salamat says. “We have been actively working on removing the pressure and yet retaining the high temperature superconductivity. We are confident that ambient condition superconducting materials are just around the corner.”
It could revolutionize the energy system. Imagine being able to power a town in Virginia with electricity generated from Niagara Falls, or a town in Colorado running off of solar arrays in Nevada.
“This technology could bring about societal change,” Salamat says.
Because these materials don’t lose power, they could even be used for storage and replace our current grid-scale batteries and the batteries we use in our devices.
“Once large-scale production of superconducting materials can be made cost-effective, then you could envision a superconducting energy grid, or to utilize their ability to store energy infinitely, and hence provide the ability to store energy from solar power,” Salamat says. “There are ground-breaking applications to yet be thought of for such new technology.”
Superconductivity could help solve the problem of transmission lines wasting power, according to Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. That said, Mann tells The News Station renewable energy doesn’t have as much of an intermittency problem as other experts say it does.
“I think that intermittency is a largely overstated problem—seized upon at times by climate inactivists as an argument for continued reliance on fossil-fuel infrastructure,” Mann says. “The reality is that a smart grid drawing upon diverse power sources in combination with available storage technology solves the problem.”
We may be able to meet all of our energy needs with the renewable energy we have today without a superconductivity breakthrough, but such a breakthrough would present an enormous amount of new opportunities. Salamat isn’t sure when that breakthrough will happen, but he’s confident it won’t take more than a decade.