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Towson physics professor’s research could lead to more efficient energy delivery

Vera Smolyaninova

Vera Smolyaninova recently published research on methods that could lead to higher-temperature superconductors.

Energy efficiency has been in the news lately. From compact fluorescent light bulbs to smart meters to renewable energy, how we generate and use power has been an important—and sometimes controversial—topic in the public sphere.

But some of the energy that’s sent to homes and businesses goes to waste before it even gets there. According to federal statistics, resistance in power lines wastes  about 7% in transit. So what’s the fix?

Towson University Physics Professor Vera Smolyaninova recently published research on superconductors: metals that, when cooled to a super-low temperature, have no resistance. Lead, for example, is a superconductor when cooled to -447 degrees Fahrenheit. Some alloys, cooled to -422 degrees, become superconducting electromagnets used in devices like MRI machines and research labs, Smolyaninova said. But maintaining those temperatures requires expensive liquid helium.

Research in the 1980s discovered higher-temperature superconductors, which can be cooled using cheaper liquid nitrogen and are now used in some cell towers. But Smolyaninova said those superconductors are brittle and unsuitable for power lines.

Smolyaninova’s research, conducted with Igor Smolyaninov of the University of Maryland, suggested that metamaterials—low-temperature superconductors combined with dielectric (insulating) materials—could someday lead to superconductors that operate at room temperature.

“Optical metamaterials can make light follow very unusual paths, which can be used for creating invisibility cloaks,” Smolyaninova said. “Studying physics of optical metamaterials, we were able to find similarities between metamaterials and high temperature superconductors, which led us to suggest a new route to increase the superconducting temperature.”

Smolyaninova said the research could have exciting implications.

“Would our approach lead to room temperature superconductivity? We do not know yet,” she said. “We think that metamaterial approach should increase superconducting temperature. This would be a step in the right direction. Experiments would need to be done to show by how much.”

Related links:
Physics World
MIT Technology Review