Have you ever thought about a future in which short/medium range planes and traditional trains become obsolete, replaced by a "super system" capable of making cars and trucks travel up to 640 kilometers per hour, or maybe even double that? ? Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston calls it a "technology that will change the world." It's the superconducting highway. How does it work?
A super-fast lane for vehicles and energy
Superconductivity is an amazing phenomenon that occurs when certain materials are cooled to extremely low temperatures, allowing them to conduct electricity without resistance. Am I right? No resistance. Zero, really zero. This implies that the phenomenon could be exploited to operate magnetic levitation trains, which "float" on the rails, allowing frictionless movement. Except (of course) for air resistance.
And how long will it take?
Despite the great potential, superconductivity has not yet abandoned research laboratories due to the high cost of infrastructures that require materials to be cooled to hundreds of degrees below zero. However, in a new study published in APL Energy (I link it here), a team of German and American researchers believe they have found a workaround. A "gimmick" that could bring superconductivity into everyday life. And create a system that would transport people, goods and energy with a single superconducting highway.
The idea is to integrate superconductors into existing highway infrastructure, and add magnets under the vehicles, avoiding the need to refine a superconducting material on each vehicle. To demonstrate the technical aspects of this concept, the researchers built a model showing the levitation of a magnet above a superconducting rail, with liquefied nitrogen used to cool the superconductors in the model. Future models will use hydrogen instead. Once it reaches its destination, the liquefied hydrogen could be converted into gas to power clean energy applications.
Each of these applications (transporting people and goods, transmitting electricity and channeling liquid hydrogen over long distances) is extremely expensive when used alone with superconductivity. However, by combining all these functions into one system, that of a 'superhighway', costs are significantly reduced and could be cost-effective in the long run.
People could travel on their own terms, enjoying the same time advantages offered by bullet train and air travel. Fuel or electricity consumption would be drastically reduced while the car or truck is on the superconducting rail, reducing both costs and environmental impact. A few technical details remain to be worked out, as Ren says, "but the learning curve shouldn't be steep, as we've learned a lot over the last 40 years or so."
Perhaps another 40 will be needed, but I have an idea that terrestrial networks will be able to serve much more, and for a long time to come.