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Electric breakthrough goes commercial

Utilities and even the Navy are snapping up new and highly efficient superconductors.

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Twenty years after their much ballyhooed discovery, high-tech materials capable of delivering 150 times the electricity of conventional wire are starting to push into the commercial market.

They promise to make generators, industrial motors, and even power lines far more efficient as the technology becomes more affordable. At least eight new cable projects already are under way in the United States, Europe, China, South Korea, Japan, and Mexico. This month, a leading US innovator in the field will shove out the factory door its first commercial product using the technology, which will help the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) keep its grid stable.

"It's been a long time coming, a real marathon, but it's exciting because we're seeing the promise become reality," says the firm's president, Greg Yurek, of American Superconductor Corp. in Westborough, Mass.

Only about a dozen companies worldwide specialize in the technology – high-temperature superconductors (HTS) that can deliver electricity with nearly no resistance to the current. Besides ASC, two are based in the US: SuperPower Inc., a subsidiary of Royal Philips Electronics, and MetOx.

"It's not just R&D anymore," says Trudy Lehner, a spokeswoman for SuperPower. "It's clearly moving into a commercial stage."

This year, ASC has seen orders soar for its HTS wire. In September, a Korean research institute ordered 22,000 meters of it. Later this month, ASC will send the US Navy in Philadelphia a superconducting motor made with HTS wire for its newest warship – a motor less than half the size and one-third the weight of a copper-based motor.

"The market right now is much more poised for this type of technology than what we would have seen just a few years ago," says Neal Elliott, industrial program director for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a Washington advocacy group.

Domestically, HTS wire has been featured in demonstration projects in Columbus, Ohio, and Albany, N.Y. In March, a half-mile of ASC's HTS wire is expected to be installed by the Long Island Power Authority. With the US electric-power industry poised for long-term growth, tens of billions of dollars will be spent to improve grid reliability – including more HTS products, industry analysts say.

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