Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
CONTEMPLATING THE GRID
by Daniel C. Sweeney, PhD
Living in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles, one perforce endures inclement summers. For the past ten years they have been increasingly inclement—not quite reaching the Palm Springs or Phoenix level of inclemency but still mightily oppressive. On the 23rd of July the Valley registered 119 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature not experienced in this region since the 130 degree heat wave of the 1850s.
Predictably, the power grid could not meet the extraordinary demands for electrical current to drive air conditioners, and many power plants shut down, unable to maintain safe distribution voltage levels. In other cases, however, service interruptions were not deliberate but were the result of thermal failures in distribution power transformers. High current levels combined with elevated air temperatures and extraordinarily intense sunlight conduced to dangerous overheating of the transformers and a breakdown of the insulation layers. In many cases the transformer cases literally exploded.
This got us thinking about an innovation that was developed in Russia over a decade ago and has been subject to surprisingly few commercialization efforts, and here we’re talking about the ultraconductor.
Ultraconductors may be considered distant kin to superconductors. They were originally developed for use in experimental Russian tokamak fusion reactors where prodigious values of current are made to circulate in order to create the intense magnetic fields necessary to contain the plasma where the controlled fusion reactions take place. Cryogenic superconductors have generally been used to form the coils of the reactor to prevent uncontrollable heat buildups from ohmic losses, but the high costs of refrigeration and the energy losses involved in providing it have always constituted a major disadvantage.
In Russia as in other highly developed industrial nations, much effort has been expended to create a room temperature, or failing that, very high temperature superconductor, but to no avail. But the ultraconductor, almost unknown prior to 1990, proved an acceptable substitute.
Ultraconductors have extremely low but not zero resistance and they exhibit this property at normal temperatures. They do not exhibit the peculiar magnetic properties of true superconductors and on this basis may be deemed less useful, but by the mere fact of offering resistance levels orders of magnitude lower than silver they all but eliminate the thermal problems that plague all electrical elements including transformers, motors, transistors, and transmission cables.
Had ultraconductors been in use in our distribution transformers, they wouldn’t have failed. Had they been in use in the generators, they could have been driven harder without fear of overheating. Of course, commercial ultraconductors would exert far more transformational effects than simply improving grid reliability. They would also go a long way toward solving thermal problems in all kinds of electrical devices and would permit the construction of extremely compact high powered motors and generators. They would also improve the efficiency of the entire electrical system and result in huge energy savings that could at least partially offset the steep rises we have seen for natural gas.
In the past two companies have claimed to have developed ultraconductors with commercial potential, Ultraconductors, Inc. and WindFire Energy, the latter now defunct. Ultraconductors management claim that much additional financing is required to go forward. The company is involved in other ventures of a largely undisclosed nature which sound suspiciously similar to the so-called “over unity” schemes which are the province of all manner of cranks and mountebanks, and the presence of obscurantist technical discussions on the Ultraconductors Website, while perhaps necessary to protect intellectual property, cannot be making it easier to secure funding for a technology that is represented in the scientific literature of peer reviewed journals.
We would hope that other researchers would investigate ultraconductors because it doesn’t appear that room temperature superconductors are anywhere in the offing. Meanwhile, American Superconductor, an entirely legitimate manufacturer, is attempting to sell cryogenic superconducting transmission cables to public utilities, and finding few takers.