It’s always a sense of pride to learn that your own University is changing science in ways the world has never before seen, and this is exactly what attendees felt at the latest Sustainability Meetup, this past November 6th. Professor of Chemistry Dr. James Meen was the featured speaker, and his topic? Superconductors.
But what exactly is a superconductor? Understanding their significance requires a bit about how we presently get our electricity.
“If you were to get close to powerlines, you will feel they are hot” Dr. Meen explained. “This is because when you transfer energy from one place to another, some of that energy is lost in heat and light.”
Superconductors are very special materials that can transfer electricity with no energy lost. In other words, if one needs a certain amount of energy to run a computer, the power plant actually needs to produce extra energy knowing that some will be lost on its way to the computer. With this in mind: if superconducting materials were used to build the energy grid, 100% of the energy from the power plant would make it to your plug – meaning more available electricity from the very same source. Additionally, superconductors can be far smaller than conventional lines (see right photo).
This combination of far greater energy efficiency and drastically reduced size have major implications for not just the energy industry, but also society at large. Engines in planes, boats, and cars, can be smaller, more efficient, and near silent; powerlines can be removed entirely for below ground superconducting wires; and renewable energy can become far more profitable.
So why aren’t we hearing about superconductors every day in the news?
“Well, most modern superconductors are not metals, but mineral alloys. So, making a wire out of them would be like trying to make your coffee mug into a wire” Meen explained. “Also there is the fact that they need to be incredibly cold to function.”
These challenges are where UH begins to shine.
Housed at the University of Houston, the Texas Center for Superconductivity (TcSUH) truly is a house innovation built. In 1987 Dr. Paul Chu rocked the physics world by creating a new superconductor – a mix of yttrium, barium, copper, and oxygen – that could function at 93 degrees Kelvin (-297 degrees Fahrenheit). Before this creation, the “hottest superconductor” only worked at 4.1 Kelvin; a temperature extremely hard and expensive to attain on earth. Dr. Chen’s new material could become a superconductor simply being cooled by liquid nitrogen.
Today, Dr. Meen and his TcSUH colleagues continue to advance “high temperature superconductivity” as well as create new advanced materials from thermoelectric materials, to clean hydrogen catalysts. If you are a student interested in working in this field, disciplines range from electrical engineering, to physics. Can’t wait to see the next breakthrough in energy from TcSUH!
The next Sustainability Meetup is the last for the Fall semester and will be all about Urban Beekeeping! The Meetup will be in the Skyline Room of the Student Center on December 4th from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Details can be found on the event's Facebook page.