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Super-duper conductivity is coming

But don't hold your breath for cooler faster machines

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Research published in this week's Nature suggests that affordable superconducting wires are closer to reality than ever.

The new material could lead to far more efficient engines, transformers and power transmission lines, according to those in the know. This is as well as bringing magnetic train rails from the realms of the totally impossible to the slightly more realistic.

Scientists at the University of Augsburg in Germany have found a way to boost the current carrying capacity of a super conducting material by between three and six times. At present the only sample of the material is a half-inch square wafer, but the boffins are working hard on ways to make sections long enough for power cables.

The conductivity of a wire is at least in part heat-dependent. Normal copper wire loses about 15 per cent of its voltage because of the resistance, getting hot in the process.

Super conductors also have their limits. As well as being expensive to make, the amount of electricity they can carry is further limited by the gaps between the crystal of the metal.

What these guys have done is found a way to alter an already decent superconductor to bridge the gaps, massively boosting its performance. The boffins used yttrium barium copper oxide, which superconducts when cooled with liquid nitrogen.

This is all very well, but the real holy grail is of course room temperature super conductors. It is all very well getting it going fast, but if you need to keep pumping liquid nitrogen all over the place, the it will still cost money. The stuff is cheap, true, but not that cheap.

The researchers say that any real technological pay off from the discovery is at least five years off, and while the implications for computing are not entirely clear to us we are sure that there are some. Anyone who knows better, as always, should feel free to keep us all informed.

We reckon that given a couple of litres of liquid nitrogen, we could have some fun whether or not the conductivity was super. Frozen banana anyone? ®

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