Commercial applications of superconducting materials have been slow to take off and the early promise of magnetically-levitated trains, compact electric motors of stunning power, and super-efficient power transmission has, in the main, not been met. Recent emergence of power distribution applications in the US and Europe, however, suggests that this could change. At last, it seems, this singular phenomenon, in which electrical resistance becomes vanishingly small in certain materials at extremely low temperatures, could be about to revolutionize the delivery of electricity.But there is a crucial deadline and failure to meet it could send superconductivity back to the commercial shadows (at least outside the medical and scientific niches where it is a key enabler in analytical instruments, magnetic resonance imaging, and particle accelerators) for another 30 years. Later this decade, the vintage infrastructure of dense copper conductors that supports power distribution in developed countries, in particular in the US, will become due for renewal. (Recent power problems in California were largely those of distribution infrastructure.) At the same time, boosting capacity to serve the needs of increasingly affluent populations will pose a challenge. Superconductivity could provide the answer — if the technology matures in time and cost targets are met.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)05425-1