Superconductors: the Future of Transportation and Electric Transmission


In the transportation of the future, all vehicles

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In the transportation of the future, all vehicles will be fully autonomous—that is, driverless. Every automobile (unless the automobile is phased out) will be equipped with a computer and GPS sensor enabling it to drive on its own through any landscape, anywhere in the world. They will also have radar which will be used to detect obstacles and prevent accidents. Furthermore, ubiquitous computing enables us to scatter computer chips across roads which would allow a central computer to track and monitor the precise motions of every vehicle—making traffic jams, traffic lights, and traffic signs a thing of the past. 

All of today’s asphalt roads and bridges will be demolished and removed and, as Dr. Michio Kaku once suggested, will be replaced with rails or pavement made out of a superconducting material. One possibility is graphene which, when sufficiently cooled, acts as a superconductor. Perhaps it could be cooled using liquid nitrogen. Every vehicle will contain magnets which will allow them to be suspended in magnetic fields and hover over the superconductive surface. These surfaces will be perpendicular to the Earth’s gravitational field and their path lengths will be minimized. Such a transportation system would allow for the absolute minimum expenditure of energy and, therefore, the greatest degree of efficiency technically possible to our time.

Most of the energy used by a vehicle is in overcoming the force of frictions exerted by the road. The key to maglev transportation is the elimination of friction. This allows vehicles to "slide" requiring extremely small inputs of additional energy to keep them moving. For example if a car was traveling a certain speed and then suddenly the road beneath it was turned into ice, it would slide across the sheet of ice effortlessly for enormous distances without the need for the expenditure of any more energy. And if somehow all of the frictional forces exerted on the car by the ground and air could be removed, then—by Newton’s first law of motion—it would drift seemingly forever with virtually no expenditure or loss of energy whatsoever. This is analogous to how the Voyager spacecraft can drift across billions of miles of empty space on only a few quarts of fuel: there is zero friction in empty space. The idea here is to have the vehicle (whether a capsule, car, or train) "hover" or "levitate" over a superconducting surface allowing it to "float" over the surface: this removes the "ground friction." And by placing these vehicles inside evacuated tubes (removing all air), this eliminates all air resistance. This is what allows maglev vehicles to travel at such high speeds using so little energy. According to calculations using classical mechanics, a maglev train moving in an evacuated tube could achieve a top speed of 4,000 mph.

Not only will superconductor materials revolutionize transportation, but they will also revolutionize electric transmission. Superconducting wires would be ideal for electric transmission since there is zero electrical resistance in the superconductor; therefore, virtually no energy is lost in heating the wires. Today's way of transferring energy from power plants through hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of power lines is horribly inefficient and wasteful: 30% of the energy produced in power plants is "lost" and goes to heating the wires, meaning that only 70% of the energy reaches their final destinations. During the second industrial revolution an astonishing 87% of energy was lost in electrical transmission.

This article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.


1. Futurism. "The Physics of Quantum Levitation". Online video clip. Vimeo. Vimeo, 16 December 2016. Web. 27 March 2017.