Once considered a research program with long-term possibilities for practical applications, the superconductor industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar market. Energy Info Source, a Lakewood, Colo.-based firm, expects sales for high-temperature superconductor (HTS) technology to reach $1.8 billion by 2025. By that time, the projected electricity savings realized by implementing this technology could power a city the size of metropolitan Denver (see chart).
Superconductors can conduct electricity at a very low temperature, once accomplished only with liquid helium. No energy is dissipated by resistive heating, so superconductors can carry current with 100% efficiency. HTS can operate at liquid nitrogen temperatures of 77K or above, which makes them suitable for electric power devices. Some of the early commercial products based on HTS technology include transformers, electric motors, generators, fault current limiters, and underground power cables.
In the future, researchers may also be able to develop HTS replacements for overhead transmission lines. More than 7% of all energy generated is lost through transmission and distribution. The total retail value of these losses amounts to $4 billion annually. HTS wires can lower these losses by about half and transport more energy over less wire due to their high current-carrying capacity, according to Energy Info Source's report, titled “Superconductivity Applications for the Electrical Industry.”
The report goes on to say that manufacturers can use HTS technology to make smaller, lighter, and more powerful equipment that can improve a power system's stability, reliability, quality, and safety. HTSs are currently used to improve signal reception in cell phone towers and for magnetic probes in scientific equipment. Scientists are also working on forming HTS wires into cables and drawing blueprints for HTS-based power systems. Second-generation motors, generators, transformers, and energy storage systems have been designed and are now in the testing stage, and electric cable producers, electricity suppliers, and electrical manufacturers are investing in the future of this technology.