What’s so super about superconductivity?

A superconductor cable of German utilities company RWE is pictured during a presentation in Essen April 30, 2014. RWE officially integrated the world's longest superconductor cable into Essen's power grid and put it into operation for the first time, according to a statement by RWE. This is a year after RWE launched a pilot project to install cables spanning as long as one kilometer that could transport five times more electricity than conventional cables.   REUTERS/Ina Fassbender  (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY ENVIRONMENT)

Superconducting cables like this one in Germany could play a big role in transforming energy systems; they just have to be kept very, very cold. Image: REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Superconductivity could dramatically cut our dependence on fossil fuels.
  • So a pair of purported ‘breakthroughs’ in the field this past summer drew a frenzy of attention.
  • But an expert at the University of Geneva says such blockbuster advances aren’t necessary for superconducting technology to have a positive impact.

Last month, some of the authors of a scientific paper discreetly asked to have it retracted. Hardly anyone seemed to notice.

At least, compared with the mini media storm that had greeted the paper’s publication in March. A few months after that, the hype only accelerated when news of yet another related discovery followed. Suddenly, people who’d maybe never heard the term “superconductivity” were being schooled on its potential to save the planet.

A superconductor is a material that can transfer electricity without losing energy in the process. That may not sound like much, but it could mean everything from an abundant future power supply for electric transportation, to conflict- and fossil fuel-free energy from nuclear fusion. The catch: it only works at temperatures cold enough to be fatal.

The pair of much-hyped recent “breakthroughs” claimed to achieve superconductivity at room temperature. “Holy Grail” seems to be the agreed-upon description for that elusive prize – see here, here, and here.

“This is the Holy Grail,” Carmine Senatore said recently, sitting in his office in Switzerland. But in his view, maybe not that holy.

There’s a lot we can start doing with the technology now, explained Senatore, the head of the Group of Applied Superconductivity at the University of Geneva, so “we don’t need to wait.” And having just experienced the hottest September on record as energy-related emissions continue to mount, waiting isn’t even really an option.

Besides, the most recent claim of superconductivity at room temperature, based on a substance dubbed “LK-99” by South Korean researchers, didn’t even last long enough for Senatore to try to reproduce it. After appearing in late July, it was debunked by early August.

Going old school: working with superconducting metal in Carmine Senatore's labs.
Going old school: working with superconducting metal in Carmine Senatore's labs. Image: World Economic Forum

This wasn't the first time bogus superconductivity claims have stirred short-lived excitement, and it won’t be the last. Because the idea of being able to do more with less energy, as we belatedly transition away from destructive fossil fuels, is thrilling.

The actual daily work of researching superconductivity, on the other hand, is less so.

Some of the typical tasks in Senatore’s labs can feel downright old school, like the working and re-working of metal wire using decades-old machines that resemble a faded assembly line. Others are decidedly higher-tech: shooting lasers through a vacuum chamber, or harnessing intensely-powerful magnets.

Liquid helium is readily (and safely) dolloped in regular doses from what looks like a gigantic beer keg. A number of experiments here make use of a superconducting metal called Niobium, which might sound exotic but can be purchased on Amazon.

It’s “everything from blacksmithing, to handling liquid helium and nitrogen, to laser ablation for coating superconductors on surfaces,” Senatore said. And it’s done not to produce an extraordinary specimen, but to glean techniques that can be swiftly put into use.

One of those uses is found inside of the Large Hadron Collider, a 27-kilometer-long machine deposited beneath Switzerland’s border with France to study “the fundamental building blocks of all things.” Thousands of superconducting magnets guide protons through the machine, and superconducting cavities accelerate them into collisions. Everything is kept sufficiently cold by liquid helium.

The ‘God particle’ and more practical benefits

Helium was first liquified in 1908 at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands – where, not coincidentally, superconductivity was initially discovered a few years later.

This is how it works: when certain materials are cooled hundreds of degrees below zero Celsius, electrons within them stop dissipating and start pairing up to smoothly pass through unimpeded. That means no energy loss, and the generation of powerful magnetic fields. The phenomenon was identified in 1911 by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, after adequately chilling a piece of mercury wire.

Jump ahead about a century, and superconductivity was playing a key role in the Large Hadron Collider’s confirmation of the existence of the “God particle.” Otherwise known as the Higgs boson, it’s believed to be key to understanding the universe.

At a slightly more practical level, cooled superconductors have become vital parts of increasingly powerful MRI machines used for medical imaging.

Even more practical, potentially, are the model superconducting cables that have cropped up in electric grids in places like Essen, Germany and Shenzhen, China.

The growing desire for air conditioning on a warming planet, and the electric cars expected to account for the bulk of all sales within a few decades, will create massive power demand. “The grid at the distribution level in a city will not be sufficient,” Senatore said. But existing infrastructure could be retrofitted with superconducting cables cooled by relatively cheap liquid nitrogen, and carrying as much as ten times the current.

Fuming vat of cryogenic fluid? Check.
Fuming vat of cryogenic fluid? Check. Image: World Economic Forum

Superconductivity has also shown promise as a means to boost renewable energy use, by enabling smaller wind turbines, and transmission cables that could efficiently supply solar power over vast distances.

But the biggest energy benefit may come in a very different form.

Fusion is the process of melding nuclei, instead of splitting them (the current means of generating nuclear power). Fusion fuels the sun, and now efforts are underway to “put the sun in a bottle,” Senatore said, by installing fusion in power plants.

The problem, and not a small one, is that the temperature in the sun’s core is about 15,000,000°C. Superconducting magnets, however, can be used to confine mind-bendingly extreme heat.

Fusion wouldn’t generate the same kind of long-lasting nuclear waste as fission, and could theoretically rely on fuel about as abundant and accessible as seawater. Dozens of countries are collaborating on an experimental fusion reactor in the south of France, and startups in the field are drawing significant financial backing; one has raised more than $2 billion, and in 2021 demonstrated the most powerful superconducting electromagnet of its kind “ever created.”

Hitting on a way to enable room-temperature superconductivity could dramatically push fusion and other sustainability-focused efforts forward. But lower-profile progress is being made, regardless. The daily blacksmithing and lab work continues. The goal remains the same.

“It will be a way to produce a lot of energy,” Senatore said, “and this energy can decouple us from fossil fuels.”

More reading on superconductivity hype versus reality

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • “The superconductor sensation has fizzled, and that’s fine.” According to this piece, the rise and fall of LK-99 offers a lesson on how to view the technology’s role in the energy transition. (Scientific American)
  • Before its supposed breakthrough properties were debunked, LK-99 triggered a “DIY superconductivity race,” according to this report. (Wired)
  • There was always some skepticism – when a physicist in the US made his room-temperature superconductivity claim in March, this magazine polled ten experts on the news. Reactions “ranged from unbridled excitement to outright dismissal.” (Quanta)
  • Those unimpeded pairs electrons in high-temperature superconducting material look as if they eventually disappear; these researchers used the “strongest steady-state magnet in the world” to try to figure out where they go. (Cornell University)
  • “Nuclear fusion: how excited should we be?” This primer explores differing approaches to a potential energy source that is “creeping inexorably forward.” (The Conversation)
  • What’s next for cutting-edge superconductivity research? According to this piece, some of the possibilities include “excitons” and “topological insulators.” (The Quantum Insider)

Carmine Senatore is co-curator of the Forum’s Transformation Map on Superconductivity. You can find feeds of expert analysis related to that topic and hundreds of others on the Strategic Intelligence platform. You’ll need to register to view.

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