In 1986, IBM (IBM) scientists stunned the physics community by unveiling a new class of compound materials that lost all electrical resistance when kept chilled at roughly -200C. Many experts predicted these superconductors would solve one of the thorniest problems in the electric power business: leakage and loss. Used in transmission lines, the high-tech materials, encased in liquid nitrogen, would reduce loss to the point where huge volumes of power could be shipped cheaply across vast distances.
Twenty years later, the cables are snaking into commercial settings. In late June, American Superconductor (AMSC) supplied three to a Long Island Power Authority site in Hauppauge, N.Y. The lines are only about 600 meters long, but can move 50 times as much electricity as like-sized conventional cables. Expensive superconductors make the most sense in high-cost areas. Next up: New York City, where such cables may soon be used in Consolidated Edison's overstuffed manholes.