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It's Electrifying

March 05, 1987

Scientists have long known that almost all substances resist the transmission of electricity, but they also know that this resistance disappears if the temperature is made low enough. Low enough is very low indeed--near absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit), which requires a lot of fancy footwork to achieve and maintain.

Recently, though, researchers led by Paul C. W. Chu of the University of Houston reported that they had developed a material that loses its resistance and becomes "superconducting" at much higher temperatures than previously imagined. Chu's material became superconducting at -283 degrees Fahrenheit. This may not sound like much, but it has some important consequences, not the least of which is that the temperature can be maintained by cooling with liquid nitrogen rather than liquid helium--a big saving in cost and a big increase in efficiency.

The implications of the discovery are even more important, for it indicates that superconductivity may be obtainable at still higher temperatures--perhaps even close to room temperature, which would eliminate the need for cooling at all and open the way to large-scale applications such as no-loss transmission over electric power lines, trains that levitate magnetically and large magnets for medical magnetic resonance imaging as a diagnostic tool for doctors.

This technology would also be a boon to the giant atom smasher, the $6-billion Superconducting Supercollider, that the Reagan Administration has asked Congress to endorse. This machine, like smaller cyclotrons, would use extremely powerful magnets to keep subatomic particles from flying off in all directions as they zip around the atom smasher. This is no easy trick. The magnets have to be superconducting--hence the word in the name of the machine--in order to be powerful enough to do the job. Any improvement in superconductivity makes it easier and cheaper to build the magnets and have them work right.

It wasn't very long ago that only a handful of researchers even knew of this esoteric field, which has now become a much more popular subject--if not the stuff of cocktail-party chatter. All indications are that we are going to hear a lot more about it in coming months as more scientists get into the race to develop new materials that are superconducting at still higher temperatures.

Outwitting nature is a marvelous human activity, undertaken by a few with promise for all.

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