May 13, 2011

Is Red Wine The Key To Superconductivity?

A surprising breakthrough moment in superconducting physics has come from, of all places, a boozy office party at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba Japan, according to a recent AFP report.

Researchers, lead by Yoshihiko Takano, made their discovery when they put tablets of an iron-based compound called Fe(Te,S) into alcoholic drinks at an office party a year ago.

The phenomenon of superconductivity is the zero-loss flow of electricity through certain materials. When an electric current passes through a conductor such as copper and silver, part of the charge is lost as heat, a loss that increases with the distance the charge travels.

Electrical resistance suddenly drops to zero in some metals when they are cooled to near absolute zero. This also produces a strong magnetic field, which has found many useful applications, including in MRI body scanners.

After being soaked for 24 hours in red wine or other alcoholic beverages, the team discovered the compound became superconductive when cooled to about -265 degrees Celsius. The researchers plan to publish their findings later this year, the 100th anniversary of the discovery of superconductivity.

The conducting ratio of compounds soaked in red wine were seven times higher than undipped compounds. It was four times higher for white wine and three times higher for beer, sake and whisky.

"The better it tastes, the more effective it is," Takano said, while allowing that taste is subjective. "There may be a connection between the substance we humans sense as a taste and the substance that induces superconductivity."

The ultimate goal of such research is to build a power infrastructure that reduces energy use and reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels. To achieve zero-loss power transmission currently, cables can be cooled with liquid nitrogen to make them superconductive.

However this is a complex and expensive technology has not been commercially used on a large scale and power companies have run only small-scale and pilot projects.

The dream is, however, to one day have superconductors operable at ambient temperatures, which would allow zero-loss transmission of power over vast distances. "This may sound like the stuff of dreams, but electricity generated by solar power in the Gobi desert (of China and Mongolia) could be transported to the other side of the globe," said Takano.

"The sun is always shining somewhere on Earth, and the dream is for electricity to be transported to far-away places with no power loss. Imagine there is a ring of superconductive cables along the equator with solar cells attached at certain places. If there were branches, clean electricity could be dispatched to the remotest rural areas."

Mamoru Mohri, a former astronaut who heads the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo, explains that advances in superconductivity could bring us "an era in which we don't have to burn as much fossil fuel".


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