Photo of a power station

As part of its mission, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Electricity (OE) is always looking for ways to improve the grid and make it more reliable and efficient. That quest has led to the development of superconductors that can be used in the place of cables running between transmission towers. Understanding why this is so revolutionary requires a little science and a little history.

Ordinary wire is a conductor, meaning it transports electricity. But even the best conductors have resistance, kind of like friction, that keeps some of the electricity from flowing and causes a loss in energy in the form of heat. Superconductors are comprised of materials that work together to conduct electricity with virtually no resistance, and no loss of energy. However, the first superconductors only worked at extremely cold temperatures—hundreds of degrees below zero! Obviously, not ideal for carrying electricity down the street.

The first breakthrough happened in 1986 with the discovery of a High-Temperature Superconductor (HTS), a superconductor that works at slightly warmer temperatures, by IBM researchers who were studying the electrical properties of ceramics formed from transition metal oxide. Shortly thereafter, in 1988, DOE began research and development (R&D) efforts to create superconducting wire that could be used in place of traditional power cables. DOE’s investment in HTS has continued over the years, through basic materials science, applied research projects, and manufacturing R&D with the goal of developing efficient electricity carriers that reduce energy losses and carbon emissions.

Most recently, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) installed HTS wire with funding from the Department of Homeland Security and support from OE developed techologies to bring power to Chicago’s north side for a one-year evaluation. Compared to conventional copper wire, the upgraded superconducting wire can transfer electricity at 200 times the electrical current. It also provides ComEd the flexibility to reroute power around downed substations to shorten restoration times for customers.

Thanks to this research, HTS is becoming a reality for America’s grid, showcasing how HTS will work in real-world settings and help deliver reliable electricity to homes and businesses. HTS offers the promise of greater efficiency and reduced carbon emissions, and it’s just one more way OE is creating the resilient grid of the future.

Learn more about how high temperature “Superconductor” technology will enhance grid resiliency for ComEd’s Chicagoland customers.