Global Supergrid

Revolutionary energy sources need a revolutionary superconducting electrical grid that spans the planet basic problem with renewable energy sources is matching supply and demand," Hoffert observes. Supplies of sunshine, wind, waves and even biofuel crops fade in and out unpredictably, and they tend to be concentrated where people are not. One solution is to build longdistance transmission lines from superconducting wires. When chilled to near absolute zero, these conduits can wheel tremendous currents over vast distances with almost no loss.

In July the BOC Group in New Jersey and its partners began installing 350 meters of superconducting cable into the grid in Albany, N.Y. The nitrogen-cooled link will carry up to 48 megawatts' worth of current at 34,500 volts. "We know the technology works; this project will demonstrate that," says Ed Garcia, a vice president at BOC.

At a 2004 workshop, experts sketched out designs for a "SuperGrid" that would simultaneously transport electricity and hydrogen. The hydrogen, condensed to a liquid


the price to beat for a one-watt solar cell


▲ Titania nanotubes made at Pennsylvania State University boost the light-harvesting abilities of solar cell dyes 10-fold.

nanocrystals. Despite their high-tech name, the dots are relatively inexpensive to make.

Nanoparticles of a different kind promise to help solar compete on price. Near San Francisco, Nanosolar is building a factory that will churn out 200 million cells a year by printing nanoscopic bits of copper-indium-gallium-diselenide onto continuous reels of ultrathin film. The particles self-assemble into light-harvesting structures. Nanosolar's CEO says he is aiming to bring the cost down to 50 cents a watt.

The buzz has awakened energy giants. Shell now has a subsidiary making solar cells, and BP in June launched a five-year project with the California Institute of Technology. Its goal: high-efficiency solar cells made from silicon nanorods.

▲ Global grid route proposed in 1981 by Buckminster Fuller connects every populated continent but avoids long ocean crossings.


▲ Global grid route proposed in 1981 by Buckminster Fuller connects every populated continent but avoids long ocean crossings.

or ultracold gas, would cool the superconducting wires and could also power fuel cells and combustion engines [see "A Power Grid for the Hydrogen Economy," by Paul M. Grant, Chauncey Starr and Thomas J. Overbye; Scientific American, July].

With a transcontinental SuperGrid, solar arrays in Australia and wind farms in Siberia might power lights in the U.S. and air conditioners in Europe. But building such infrastructure would most likely take generations and trillions of dollars.

n Progress

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