The seven percent solution: LANL has role to play in evolving discussion on energy efficience.

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By Roger Snodgrass


FAR OUT  Mass transportation and long distance electric transmission could be given a tremendous boost in some scenarios for the future, including this artist’s vision of a 4000 MPH long distance, underground MAGLEV system that also carries a superconducting cable.

The idea of replacing the antiquated national electrical grid with a smarter system that would also make long distance energy transmission more efficient is gaining more than a head of steam these days. It’s one of the provisions included in a Senate energy proposal that emerged from committee last week and separate bills movingthrough the House.

Dean Peterson suggests we seriously consider the advantages of superconducting.

A Los Alamos scientist, Peterson is associated with the Los Alamos National Laboratory Superconductivity Center, where a number of research and development projects have been underway for the last several years.

This evening in Española Peterson will gives his fourth and final talk in the lab’s Frontiers in Science series, entitled “Lost in Transmission.” It’s a comforting soft-shoe presentation about one of the ways advanced technology may yet snatch the world from the jaws of disaster.

A version of the talk, which was given in Santa Fe Tuesday, and an interview with Peterson Wednesday provided many details about the status and future of the superconducting effort.

“Just preparing the talk, I got more enthusiastic about the future,” he said.

Electricity carried over certain kinds of wires at extremely cold temperatures has almost no resistance, which means it can be carried far more efficiently, saving in general about 10 percent of what would otherwise be wasted energy. Including the cost of, say, liquid nitrogen for the cooling, Peterson says, you have the makings of a seven percent solution to the energy and climate problems, cutting greenhouse emissions by many power plants worth of global warming.

Peterson, taking his motto from a Dilbert cartoon, says, “Resistance is futile.”

Superconducted electricity is already used to power the Large Hadron Collider, which harnesses electromagnetism to accelerate particles to their highest energies and in Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, which is now one of our most common and powerful medical diagnostic tools.

But superconductivity could contribute to an energy revolution in a larger sense, Peterson says, providing an enormous storage capacity for alternative energy sources, like wind and solar, which are more intermittent than fossil or nuclear fuel generators. Superconductors are also a key component in the next generation of fault current limiters to protect grid components from overloads and regional brownouts.

A smart, efficient and revolutionary new energy grid might even double as a distribution system for hydrogen, an even colder refrigerant, but with enormous potential over the long run s a fuel. If liquid hydrogen could be safely harnessed, stored and transported, along with electricity, even greater efficiencies would accrue.

Some futurists envision a combination hydrogen fuel pipe and a 4,000 MPH Maglev train in a partial vacuum working together for rapid long distance transit and power transmission.

Superconductivity technology has applications for cables, generators, transformers, motors, and many kinds of transportation systems. Much depends on further progress in cutting the cost for new nanotech wires and films.

“We have to phase it in,” Peterson said. “First we start retrofitting the electrical infrastructure in the big cities. That’s a big problem in places that need more power downtown. Many utilities don’t even know where the power lines are any more.”

A member of the Santa Fe audience observed that the need was already here with plans already underway for reconstructing the grid.

“Are we going to be able to incorporate this technology now?” he asked.

“We’re not there yet,” Peterson said overall. “I’m giving you a little window into the future of what we might anticipate.”

Some applications for motor generators are expected to enter the market as early as 2011, and power cables and transformers are project for 2014.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is currently partnering with superconducting film and wire manufacturers and participating in readiness review projects for a number of retrofitting projects around the country, including a new project in New Orleans.

A LANL simulation of the national grid contains 65,000 geographical references for electrical sites in all 50 states, and the lab has developed an archive of natural and manmade outage scenarios, according to one of Peterson’s slides.