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Ask Slashdot: How Would Room-Temp Superconductors Affect Us? 262

Posted by timothy
from the I'd-care-more-about-electric-cars dept.
Bananatree3 writes "While we have sci-fi visions of room temperature superconductors like in the movie Avatar, the question still remains: How would the discovery of a such a material impact our everyday lives? How would the nature of warfare change? How would the global economy react? What are the cultural pros and cons of such a technological shift?" And just as important, in what contexts would you want to see it first employed?
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Ask Slashdot: How Would Room-Temp Superconductors Affect Us?

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  • by ShooterNeo (555040) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:09AM (#39465039)

    By the standards of the physical universe, "room temperature" is pretty arbitrary. For a spacecraft, keeping superconductors cold is reasonably easy.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:14AM (#39465047)

      From a human perspective I am rather fond of living at or around room temperature.

    • by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:14AM (#39465049)

      Not really: radiative emission is the only type of cooling you can get in space. Depending how much power you're bleeding off elsewhere on your ship, it could be quite difficult to keep things suitably cool. Especially considering that any part of your ship facing the sun is going to be picking up quite a high thermal load.

      • by forand (530402) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:47AM (#39465159) Homepage
        This is true but one of the great things about a superconductor is that R (and thus the power dissipated) goes to zero. So while it is difficult to dissipate heat in space, you won't be building up heat in the superconductors themselves.
        • by virg_mattes (230616) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @08:55AM (#39465447)
          The idea that the superconductor won't be adding to the thermal load is all well and good, but it doesn't cope with the problem of heat that comes in from solar radiation or heat generated by other parts of the ship like engines. Furthermore, it becomes a self-reinforcing problem, because being unable to dissipate heat makes the superconductor stop superconducting, which only adds to the problem.

          Virg
      • by Chalnoth (1334923) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @12:42PM (#39466895)
        In practice, you can cool satellites pretty darned far. WMAP is cooled to 90K passively. Planck is cooled to 50K passively. So yes, it is very possible to cool satellites to within the superconductivity range of modern high-temperature superconductors.
    • by GreenTech11 (1471589) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:20AM (#39465065)

      While you're correct in the second half of your comment, you are ignoring the very good reasons that are driving our search for a room-temperature superconductor. Without doing the calculations, I very much doubt that there is enough fuel on Earth to lift the entire population into a near-Earth orbit, not to mention the massive amounts of infrastructure required to keep them there, (and breathing).

      Therefore, a superconductor which would allow us to eliminate the massive amounts of wastage in our electrical infrastructure is certainly useful. Conveniently, most of Earth is at a "room temperature" or similar, making it a far less arbitrary concept. In terms of effect on everyday life, I like to think that in the long run it'll be beneficial, hopefully removing some of the lack of resources which drives most conflicts. Of course, most of human history is against me on that one, technological leaps like these tend to trigger conflicts in the short term, before providing net benefit to the populations, hopefully we survive the next one.

      • by Maury Markowitz (452832) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @08:28AM (#39465301) Homepage

        "Therefore, a superconductor which would allow us to eliminate the massive amounts of wastage in our electrical infrastructure "

        The wastage in the electric infrastructure, on a whole, is about 7% in the US. Speaking of long-distance transmission only, it's closer to 3%

        There's not much to fix here, so unless the new superconductor is also free, I don't think you'd see the massive uptake people imagine.

        The main upside would be size, not cost. Assuming it has higher current density, piping power into urban areas becomes easier.

        • by NEDHead (1651195) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @09:34AM (#39465721)

          While these facts may be true on the surface (I haven't actually checked), what you are missing is that most energy production is relatively local, and hence generating capacity is built & run to deal with local maximal demand. Truly efficient long, long distance transmission lines would allow distant capacity to be factored in to the system. Think wind, solar, day vs night etc. There is currently a project (Tres Amigos) designed around a superconducting hub to connect the three major energy networks in the US. In addition there are (at least) plans for several other superconducting trunks, including one to link a number of off shore wind projects. The net efficiency gains for the system as a whole would far exceed the 3-7% mentioned above.

          That said, I am partial to local production, as finely grained as possible, to cover the baseline requirements and minimize the opportunity for system-wide failures.

        • by Iamthecheese (1264298) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @10:19AM (#39465947)
          That 7% is transmission loss only. Now consider using it in computing to prevent waste heat from being generated. In radio transmitters for better efficiency. In house wiring. In appliances. In cars. In electric cars. Now you're talking about at least a 50% boost. And that's before you consider using it in electric motors and generators.
          • by delt0r (999393)
            A really poor electric motor has efficiency as low as 50%. Good ones are well over 90%. In fact if you leave out storage total electrical energy efficiency can and often is in the 80-95% range (generator to motor). For example in electric-electric "gear box" of a locomotive. So replacing everything with supper conductors at best will get you a 20% gain. Not worth it if has to come from Pandora that is for sure.

            However if the critical current density and magnetic field density are high enough, you get a h
          • by Skal Tura (595728)

            Brushless motors can be already 97-98% efficient. Not much to gain there.
            But transmitting the power from battery, to ESC (Electronic Speed Controller) and finally to motor can gain quite a bit. Currently in RC cars you use extremely fine and expensive wiring, yet they tend to burn out now and then as amperages have gone beyond 400A peaks ...

            House wiring will gain some, but 240V is quite a high voltage.

            Car wiring will benefit a lot, the losses are very significant at 12V DC.

            but most of these will require hig

      • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

        by ShooterNeo (555040)

        Put this into your "without doing the calculations" claptrap.

        Just think for a moment. Ok, so there is not enough petroleum on the planet to put everyone into near earth orbit. But, that isn't the only way. ENERGY is what is needed. How might you get enough energy?

        1. Massive solar arrays in space. These arrays could have more surface area than the planet, and generate electricity 24/7.
        2. Thorium and Uranium Breeder Reactors
        3. Covering the earth with solar panels
        4. ??? Fusion???

        The first 3 are solid,

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:22AM (#39465075)

      Is it hell, space isn't cold, it is inert. I seriously wish people would stop thinking this.
      The only way heat gets out of things in space is radiative or an infinitely small amount of conductive.
      Direct sunlight on a person would burn them in space, likewise heating up metals and components.

      Space is actually probably harder to cool things down in simply due to sunlight.
      On earth it is pretty easy to have something in shadow and vented so that an incredible amount of heat is exchanged over to the flowing air.
      In space, you can only rely on highly-resistant insulators and/or mirrors to get rid of heat unless you liquid cool things. (which is good too since you can then use that heat inside the ship)

      • Space is actually very hot - there may not be many particles, but they are moving fast. The only reason it seems cold is that, even though most things in space will gain heat by conduction, the rate is negligable compared to radiative transfer.
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Not if they're in a room.

  • the answer (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tom (822) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:17AM (#39465057) Homepage Journal

    The most realistic answer, but not the one you want to hear, is: Nobody really knows.

    If history teaches us one thing than it is that we are horrible at predicting the outcomes of anything major. In hindsight, we can "explain" things, but our predictions suck so badly, it's a surprise we haven't given up on the subject. And that's for both experts and non-experts.

    Nobody came even close to predicting the impact of computers. Or electricity. People didn't think WW1 would become the slaughterhouse it did. There are refugees around the globe who are living in "temporary" shelters, waiting to return home because the conflict will surely be over any day now. Some of them have been waiting for a decade and more.

    The real impact of this technology, as most, will most likely not be anything that anyone today predicts, but something that someone in the future comes up with that nobody thought of before. That includes the inventors. I don't think Graham Bell ever thought that "please turn off your mobile phones" would be a screen shown in these newfangled movie theatres that just came about in his time.

    • by Mikkeles (698461) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:55AM (#39465179)

      Well, obviously, like every other industrial advance in the last few hundred years, it will cause cows' milk to sour, the sun to stop rising and setting, and cancer.

      • by dwye (1127395)

        And it would be fattening.

        On the bright side, if we can believe the Roadrunner cartoons, it should make satellite retrieval and anvil delivery fairly easy.

    • Re:the answer (Score:5, Insightful)

      by TheRaven64 (641858) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @08:02AM (#39465197) Journal

      You can't predict everything, but you can predict some things. Before the Internet, people could look at networks and think that it would be possible to replace mail order shops and newspapers with a network connection, for example. It's a small leap to go from board games to imagining a machine that could sit in your living room and let you play any board game you wanted on a screen. It's a bigger leap to go from that to the kinds of computer game we have available today.

      There are some very obvious applications for room-temperature superconductors, if they could be made cheap enough. The most obvious is long power lines. For example, a moderate sized solar power plant in the middle of the Sahara desert could provide Europe with most of the power that it needs quite easily, but the transmission losses make it unfeasible. With a superconducting power line, it would be just as cheap as local solar power. Taking this a step further, you could have a power ring going all around the world so that there would always be sun shining somewhere and feeding in power. This would cause quite massive changes to the economics of power generation and distribution.

      Another obvious place is in transportation. Maglev trains can run very efficiently now, but with room temperature superconductors the cost of building the track would be much lower (you could use electromagnets that would permanently keep their charge and wouldn't require cooling).

      Basically, anything that uses magnets or relies on power distribution would suddenly become massively more efficient. More importantly, perhaps, a lot of things that currently use ball bearings and other anti-friction devices could be modified to use electromagnets instead.

      It's also worth remembering that superconductors are not just free of electrical resistance, they also have a constant temperature along their lengths. This would make them perfect for anything involving heat redistribution, if they could maintain their superconducting property up to around 350-400 Kelvin. For example, you could easily make a small fanless computer if you could cote the whole of the outside in a layer of superconductor with a pad touching the top of the CPU - the entire case would be a heat sink, and the CPU would never get hotter than the case. House heating systems would be similarly simplified. Rather than having a boiler that heated water and then pumped it through radiators, your radiators could just be coated in a superconducting material with superconducting wires leading into the boiler. As you heated up the end in the boiler, you'd heat up all of the radiators. More efficient and also simpler to build. Not to mention being easier to extend - you could add another radiator by just running a wire from an existing one...

      • Re:the answer (Score:4, Informative)

        by nickersonm (1646933) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @08:27AM (#39465297)

        No, superconductors are not thermally superconductive, just electrically. Niven made a mistake there.

        • Pity. Is there an analogue (even theoretical) to electrical superconductors that would work along the lines that Niven described?

          A superconductor of heat might be almost as significant a discovery as the electrical ones.

        • by jpapon (1877296)

          you could easily make a small fanless computer if you could cote the whole of the outside in a layer of superconductor with a pad touching the top of the CPU

          Just remember, whatever you do, for god sakes don't touch that computer!! All of the heat in your hand would be sucked out instantly!!!

        • by ceoyoyo (59147)

          "Niven made a mistake there."

          Not necessarily. Room temperature superconductors will likely have to work on an entirely different principle to current superconductors. Room temperature superconductivity might well involve ordered behaviour in the phonons as well as the electrons.

        • Yup, I accepted that without checking, and on further reflection it appears that it's nonsense. Please consider the last paragraph of my post retracted.
      • This is a typical technologist prediction. I predict, after watching our economy, that there will be SO much resistance from companies who are on one side powerful and on the other side the biggest losers from such developments that it won't happen, no matter how sensible it would be. Instead, we'll probably get the same kind of power plants of today with higher efficiency and people thinking it's great that we now waste less power on transportation.

        • by khallow (566160)

          I predict, after watching our economy, that there will be SO much resistance from companies who are on one side powerful and on the other side the biggest losers from such developments that it won't happen, no matter how sensible it would be

          What won't happen?

          Instead, we'll probably get the same kind of power plants of today with higher efficiency and people thinking it's great that we now waste less power on transportation.

          First, that's the prediction that was made. Second, those people would be right. We're not going to get radically different sorts of power plants because there aren't radically different sorts of power plants to get. They're almost all heat engines in the end.

          And it would be great if we were using a lot less energy on transportation.

          As to "powerful corporations", they haven't ever been powerful enough to prevent the future.

          • The prediction was that we'd get cheap solar power from the Sahara. Won't happen.

            And apparently there are corporations powerful enough to prevent the future. For reference, see content industry.

            • Re:the answer (Score:4, Insightful)

              by khallow (566160) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @12:57PM (#39467009)

              The prediction was that we'd get cheap solar power from the Sahara. Won't happen.

              I certainly won't get cheap solar power from the Sahara, but that's because I live in the US. Europe is a different story and they're already starting prototype plants.

              And apparently there are corporations powerful enough to prevent the future. For reference, see content industry.

              Trying is not the same as succeeding. For example, Cnut the Great tried to command the tide (coincidentally, to show to his subjects the ephemeral power of kings, a point relevant to our discussion today) and we wouldn't claim that he succeeded just because he made an attempt. Similarly, we wouldn't claim that the "content industry" has succeeded in "preventing the future" merely because they've tried legal ploys to maintain their business models.

      • by Tom (822)

        You can't predict everything, but you can predict some things.

        In common english, we call this guessing. And when we evaluate examples from the past, we almost always make several mistakes that lead us to believe that our past prediction performance was much better than it really was. Taleb calls that phenomenon "silent evidence", meaning that when we look back, we usually miss a lot of the errors that were made.

        There is one and only one way to correctly evaluate predictions, and that is to keep a spotless record of all the predictions made. If you don't have that comp

    • Re:the answer (Score:4, Insightful)

      by TornCityVenz (1123185) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @08:19AM (#39465265) Homepage Journal

      If history teaches us anything, The first use would somehow be related to Porn.

    • by khallow (566160)

      If history teaches us one thing than it is that we are horrible at predicting the outcomes of anything major. In hindsight, we can "explain" things, but our predictions suck so badly, it's a surprise we haven't given up on the subject. And that's for both experts and non-experts.

      The reason that we haven't given up is that there is some value in the attempt. And you ignore scope. Predicting what's going to happen in 500 years isn't going to be remotely accurate, but predicting near future applications of superconductors (should they come out today) is not a vast, open-ended problem.

    • by fermion (181285)
      We are horrible at predicting, but we do have some potential applications now. For instance, in the US we have three different power grids with three slightly set of specifications. Hooking these up directly is counter-indicated, as failures can cascade into blackouts over large geographical areas, but using superconducting materials it is likely we can connect the three grids. In fact such a project is now underway. The benefit is that blackouts will be less likely as power can be efficiently shared.
  • by Nick Fel (1320709) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:18AM (#39465059)
    Warfare? Who'd go to war when they had a hoverboard at home?
  • Horrible... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by solidraven (1633185) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:30AM (#39465085)
    The first use will be warfare as is always the case sadly. You'll probably first see rail- and coil-guns show up. Next you'll find its uses in radars and specifically in trying to make them useless. Then it will proceed into gimmicks for rich people. After that it'll go to civil scientists (space exploration, particle accelerators, ...) and maybe a few years later into people's houses. Somewhere in between all of that somebody might find a use for it in medicine (other than improving your standard NMRI).
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Tim12s (209786)

      The highest selling application of this will end up in some sort of glowing cat with a pink ribbon sold to kids, that you have to press a button to feed all day.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Tim12s (209786)

        No batteries for kids toys. Yup. Thats probably the winning application.

    • by Hartree (191324)

      Indeed. We should give up agriculture because it allows the feeding of larger armies in a given area thus making warfare more devastating. (/sarcasm)

      Any technology from wheels to teakettles to field effect transistors can be put to military or nonmilitary use. I'm not going to give up my coffee pot because the metallurgy that went into it also allows you to make effective firearms.

  • well (Score:4, Interesting)

    by strack (1051390) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:32AM (#39465093)
    OLED monitor floating in midair. pen floating in midair. FLUX PIN ALL THE THINGS
  • by jamesh (87723)

    Depending on who discovers it, it might make us take a good hard look at the patent system when the patent holders start screwing over everyone who wants to do anything with it. Especially if the material can be manufactured relatively cheaply and a major part of the cost is the right to manufacture it.

    Even more interesting would be if it was discovered in China or some other country with a (perceived?) history of disregard for foreign IP.

    The technology itself will probably be interesting too.

  • All the initial applications will have something to do with high-frequency trading.

  • Well, we currently only lose about 6-7% of the electric energy we generate to transmission losses. So, superconducting transmission lines are unlikely to be earth shattering. Someone else posted a link to SMES -- these are superconducting energy storage devices. If those become cheap and plentiful, then we might blunt the distinction between "peak" and "offpeak" electricity use, allowing us to size powerplants more moderately.

    If the material could work in place of aluminum or copper in a semiconductor, i

    • Well, we currently only lose about 6-7% of the electric energy we generate to transmission losses.

      6% of a trillion-dollar industry is "not all that much"?

    • Well, we currently only lose about 6-7% of the electric energy we generate to transmission losses.

      And in order to achieve that, it's necessary to keep it quite rare for any large amount of electricity to be transmitted for long distances. With room-temperature superconductors, it's possible for electricity generated anywhere in the world to be used anywhere in the world. That's gonna make for a big change.

      But, in general, I wouldn't expect anything dramatic. A lot of things would just get "a little more e

    • by Andy_R (114137)

      The reason we only lose 6-7% is because we don't build long powerlines, we simply put up with things being built in non-optimal places, and drop projects that have insufficient local demand.

      If that constraint goes, we can stop having to put powerplants right next to steelworks and nuclear plants anywhere near population centres, and solar energy/windfarms/hydroelectrics become vastly more competitive, because it no longer matters that the Gobi Desert, the Himalayas and the bottom of Victoria Falls don't hav

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Floating trains and cheap access to orbit. Yup, nothing much would change. Not to mention all the things we haven't thought of yet.

  • by turing_m (1030530) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:46AM (#39465157)

    http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/superconductors-picture-of-progress.html [blogspot.com.au]

    For those wondering, the highest critical temperature as of 2012 is 135K. Room temperature is about 300K. So no, unobtanium hasn't been discovered yet.

  • It is about producing it in large enough quantity and cheap enough to deploy it. Even than, I expect that changes would be slow and minor, not anything earth-shattering. Why always these stupid fake "visions" where one thing has tremendous impact? The world does not work that way.

    • by strack (1051390)
      yes. it totally does not work that way. one thing never has a tremendous impaCOUGH COUGH CARS COUGH ELECTRICITY COUGH NUCLEAR POWER COUGH THE INTERNET COUGH COUGHct. ahem.
  • by Sique (173459) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @07:59AM (#39465187) Homepage

    Maglevs comes to mind - you only once load the magnets along the track, and then they will keep the magnetic field forever.
    Imagine roadrails along the interstates which keep the cars on track. Also the hover car will suddenly be feasible - as soon as the car moves forward, induction will load the magnets inside the car and let it hover along the supra conducting magnets in the road. You can see the effect already today at some science shows where they have supraconducting maglevs. Zero friction against the track, just air friction left. One can imagine subways with supracontucting tracks, which work with air pressure along the tubes.

    Super strong magnets can be build, which you once load with electricity and which then keep the magnetism forever. Construction could get rid of glue and screws, just put the elements together, load the magnets once, and they will keep everything in shape. You could lock your house with magnetic bars, which once locked, keep tight until you unload the electricity from the bars and they open again.

    You could store electricity in giant coils instead of chemical cells, making loading and unloading the electricity much faster, and enabling lots of non-constant electricity creators like windwheels and solar panels to work within a giant grid and finally overcome the problem of the electric base load.

    • Building a large structure using superconducting magnetic connections sounds interesting... Until you have a hot fire and the entire structure collapses.
  • The US currently loses about 6.5% of the power generated to transmission losses. If we developed a material capable of being used for transmission lines (i.e. super conductive at >60 C and malleable enough to be made into wires) we would gain that back promptly which would also reduce our carbon emissions. It would become far more economically viable to build large scale solar and wind power farms in the central areas of the USA (further from the large population centers) as one would not be losing as mu
  • Well, we would need plenty of cheap electricity to power all those super superconducting super devices. I guess the DOA Superconducting Super Collider might have a second chance.

  • storage: if there is no loss, can you make a ring of superconductor material, and start feeding dc power into that ring letting it spin around and around the hoop... feeding it more and more... then letting it sit till you need it, at which point you tap in and pull it out... theoretically this ring could hold a HELL of a lot of electricity.

    transfer... most of the power from an electrical generation station, nuclear, hydro, coal, whatever... is lost in the wires getting it to where its needed... if the wir

    • There's a limit for storage. Superconductors lose their superconductivity in the presence of magnetic fields over a threshold strength that depends on material used. This is why record-breaking electromagnets still use the really thick coil of copper construction.
  • Hoverboard !

  • by bertok (226922) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @08:21AM (#39465277)

    Most people think of superconductors as merely a "perfectly efficient" conductor. While this is true, it just scratches the surface of what's possible with superconductors. Using superconductors just to improve efficiency wouldn't be that big a deal by itself. It would improve battery life a little bit, and maybe drop bulk electricity transmission overheads, but not by much, and certainly not immediately. Making most superconductors into high-tensile wire is a non-trivial exercise, even if cooling isn't a problem -- and it will be! Just because a material is discovered that can conduct at "room" temperature isn't helpful for wire outdoors in direct sunlight, or in a hot environment inside high-temperature machinery. Last but not least, superconductors have current and magnetic field limits that increase as they are cooled past the transition temperature. A superconductor with a transition temperature of 26C would probably have only a few limited applications above 20C.

    The other uses are more interesting, and often more amenable to thermal control:

    The Meissner_effect [wikipedia.org] provides magnetic shielding, which is useful for all sorts of things, like amplifiers, or for protecting sensitive electronics. This is also what causes magnets to levitate above Type 2 superconductors. I assume that a room-temperature superconductor would be Type 2, so levitation would likely be possible.

    The London moment [wikipedia.org] could be used in gyroscopes and the like.

    Josephson junctions [wikipedia.org] provide all sorts of functions, like ultra-sensitive magnetic field sensors (think hard-drives and MRIs).

    Still, all of that is a bit... meh. I mean sure, you get less noise in your now ultra-sensitive amplifier, and electricity will cost 10% less than it would have otherwise in 30 years. Is this life changing? Probably not really.

    A much more interesting potential application than all of those combined is Rapid Single Flux Quantum [wikipedia.org] digital circuitry. That stuff makes silicon look like vacuum tubes. Think 100GHz+, self-clocking, 1000x as efficient as CMOS, and manufacturable now, with only the cooling requirement the big down-side. If RSFQ could be made to work at room-temperature (or even near it), you could be looking at a sudden massive leap forward in computer power like never before. For example, with a power draw 1000x lower, it would be possible to stack every chip in a typical computer into a little "cube", with much shorter wire lengths, and hence, latencies. We can't do this now, because that cube would literally melt in seconds form the heat.

    The reality-check of all this is that many MRI machines are still cooled by liquid helium, even though superconductors that work at liquid nitrogen temperatures have been available for a while. This tells you a lot about the limitations that might restrict the application of even a hypothetical room-temperature superconductor. For example, ultra-sensitive sensors and RSFQ may not work at all, because the tiny signal quanta may be swamped by the background thermal noise. Similarly, manufacturability of wire and maximum magnetic field strength is a key requirement for a lot of applications, like MRIs and electric motors.

    Personally, I suspect that the first room-temperature superconductor will be initially manufacturable in bulk only as a thin-film, so expect the first decade or two to be mostly about improved circuitry and sensors more than anything else. This might be closer than people think. For example, there's a harmless quack [superconductors.org] who claims to have achieved superconductivity at 28C by manufacturing extremely complex copper-based crystals as a thin layer between two different traditional copper-based superconductors. Assuming for a second that he's onto something, it gives you an idea

    • A much more interesting potential application than all of those combined is Rapid Single Flux Quantum [wikipedia.org] digital circuitry. That stuff makes silicon look like vacuum tubes. Think 100GHz+, self-clocking, 1000x as efficient as CMOS, and manufacturable now, with only the cooling requirement the big down-side. If RSFQ could be made to work at room-temperature (or even near it), you could be looking at a sudden massive leap forward in computer power like never before. For example, with a power draw

  • by msobkow (48369) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @08:37AM (#39465335) Homepage Journal

    It's rather tough to predict the impact of room temperature semi-conductors without knowing a lot more about the specifics of the technology.

    For example, is the material suitable for long-haul power lines? Does it have the tensile strength to be deployed as multi-kilometer wiring? If it is, we can expect to see a dramatic improvement in the efficiency of power distribution, resulting in delays in the deployment of new power plants because the old ones would suddenly be delivering 10-20% more power to the home/business instead of losing it in the wiring.

    Is the material suitable for fine wiring? If so, we may see some marginal improvements in the power drain of general electrical and electronic equipment.

    No matter what happens in this field, we can expect that the military will be the first to apply the technology. They're really the only ones with the budget to become "early adopters" of such a shift in technology, other than research prototypes coming out of the likes of IBM.

    All in all, though, I really wouldn't expect a very dramatic shift in power systems, though. Efficiency is great, but it rarely is an earth-shattering improvement.

    Improving the efficiency of transmission doesn't change the speed of transmission, so it really wouldn't affect the raw computing horsepower of machines, just their power consumption. It's not like anyone has been talking about any superconductors that could replace the metal wiring layers on VLSI chips -- having a material and being able to vapour deposit or lithograph the material are two dramatically different technologies, and it could be decades after the discovery of the material before someone comes up with a practical way to use it on the microscopic scale of chips.

    Personally I'm more interested in some of the "light switch" technologies that are being experimented with, because those technologies could change the fundamental physics of computing far more dramatically than reducing power consumption would.

  • Now without air.
  • it would be world-changing, without a shadow of doubt. imagine having transatlantic cables the thickness of the present internet fibreoptic cables that distributed terawatts of power as well as information. it would not need to be high voltage, so there would be no risk of arcing.

    now imagine those cables running across the world's deserts, to a massive array of solar collectors.

    now imagine those cables running to deep ocean temperature-differential power stations (water 1 mile down is 3-4 centigrade lower

    • Cool visions, alas, physics is a bitch. Superconductors do not have limitless current capacities/cross sectional area, and the higher temperature ones tend to have lower limits.

      Not saying we couldn't do it, but the cables don't need to be thin as a pencil.

      For that matter, they don't need to work at room temperature, either. There are commercial application using liquid nitrogen cooled superconductors for hot spots in the power grid.

  • While it can be hard/impossible to predict how they will effect us in the long term, I think it is quite easy to predict what will happen in the short term.

    First, if we do get room temperature superconductors working at a reasonably useful scale, they will be expensive. The first batch of any new technology is expensive because: 1) Manufacturing capacity is still being built. 2) Recovering research costs. 3) Little in the way of competition.

    So any use of these superconductors will have to 1) Be used by

  • Workable high-temperature (i.e. room-temperature) superconductors would make magnetic fusion reactors (tokamaks) a lot cheaper. This is one of the things that would be a game-changer for fusion.

  • Could you imagine? You'd have to collect all that condensed air...

  • The DC to DC conversions inside portable electronic devices would get a lot better. All the circuits inside the devices would be more efficient. It might enable some kind of better battery technology also. Room temp superconductor is not going to be able to be produced on a large scale at low price anytime soon after discovery, so transmission lines are the last thing on the list to get made.
  • by nimbius (983462) on Sunday March 25, 2012 @11:43AM (#39466401) Homepage
    to see some room-temperature semiconductors in the future. keeping the quantum computer in the living room has been a tough job lately. Ive found that while the couch and the area rug dont mind hovering below absolute-zero, the cats certainly dont appreciate it very much.
  • The practical considerations for applications it ends up in depend tremendously on how much it costs. If this room temperature supercondictor costs more than the current cryogenic cooling of a conventional superconductor, because it's made from a super exotic material or requires a prohibitively expensive process to manufacture, it's not likely to displace it from most current applications, let alone get into many new ones. Of course that still depends on the price difference; If they're comparable you'll see some change over. Power companies would love it, but if the conductor costs significantly more than the percentage of power they are losing to resistive heating in a given section, it won't get changed. Chip applications may be a notable exception if it's not terribly expensive, but they have the additional consideration of manufacturing: if it can't be laid down on silicon in a process that is compatible with the current lithography, they are almost certainly going to stay in a niche market for a long time even if the bulk material is dirt cheap.

    So folks can do the Glass half full thing and figure out places where it can be used, but without an answer to "How much does it cost" there is no way to predict the paramount information of where it *will* be used.

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