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Superconductors Are Finally Coming of Age

Every technology must compete against an incumbent: Transistors fought vacuum tubes; optical fibers fought copper wires in communications; and today, superconductors are facing off against copper cables in the electricity transmission space.

Superconductor technologies have made significant advancements in the last decade; however, there are still some hurdles to get over before they are implemented en masse.

At very low temperatures – between -320 degrees F (-196 C) and -460 degrees F (-273 C) – certain metal and ceramic materials conduct electricity with virtually no resistance. Wires made of these superconducting materials can transmit 100-150 times more electricity than traditional copper wires without any losses in efficiency. (Wires that operate in the -320 degree F range are called “high-temperature” superconductors, or HTS).

Scientists have known about superconductivity since the early 1900’s. But it’s only in recent years that companies have produced wires and cables that are becoming cost-competitive with traditional technologies.

Greg Yurek, CEO of American Superconductor (AMSC), thinks that the time is right for HTS technologies to penetrate the market. Last year, the company received an order for 10 million feet (3 million meters) of wire from the South Korean company LS Cable. This is the first in a series of orders that could bring more than 30 miles of superconductor cable to South Korea. The company expects numerous orders to come from China in the coming years as well.

“I think it’s a marker of the transition into the age of superconductors,” says Yurek.

On a wire to wire basis, superconductors can cost multiples more than copper. But on the system level – when factoring in capacity, lifetime, efficiency and maintenance – Yurek says that superconducting cables are cost-competitive with conventional cables. And because they’re buried underground, HTS cables avoid problems associated with weather or visual impact.

While costs are coming in line with incumbent technologies, it’s still an uphill battle. Utilities are notoriously slow at adopting new technologies. The economic downturn also made it unrealistic for power companies to make big infrastructure investments. That has made it very tough for companies like AMSC to sell large volumes of superconductors in America. Consequently, companies in Asian markets will likely be the top buyers of HTS technology in the medium-term.

“Those countries have used the opportunity of the economic slowdown in the U.S. to catch up and are probably going to pass the U.S. in adoption,” says AMSC’s Yurek.

The LS cable deal allowed AMSC to buy a slew of new equipment and expand HTS manufacturing operations at its Devens, Massachusetts facility – the largest in the world. But even with an increase in demand for the technology, only about a quarter of the 350,000 square foot space is filled. It would take a giant leap in demand to fill the factory to capacity.

Ironically, it could be a U.S. project that gives AMSC that additional boost. As a member of teams developing projects like Tres Amigas – which will use voltage source convertors and superconductor pipelines to link America’s three electricity grids – AMSC could eventually deploy more than $1 billion worth of wire.

It will be many years before superconductors reach their full potential. But the market is certainly moving in a positive direction for the technology.

To hear more from CEO Greg Yurek about the Superconductor market, listen to this week’s podcast linked above. We’ll also talk to John Farrell about how some big renewable energy projects face “dis-economies” of scale. To take a short tour of the company’s facility, watch the video below.