Sun, May 15, 2011 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Wine at office party sparks superconductor discovery


Yoshihiko Takano, right, professor of Japan’s National Institute for Material Science, and researcher Keita Deguchi display a superconductive metal compound at a laboratory in Tsukuba, Japan, on March 10.

Warning: Excessive consumption of alcohol can damage your health

Photo: AFP

Japanese scientists at a boozy office party stumbled across a discovery they hope will help revolutionize efficient energy transmission one day: Red wine makes a metal compound superconductive.

The researchers plan to showcase their surprise findings later this year, the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the phenomenon of superconductivity, the zero-loss flow of electricity through certain materials.

The “eureka” moment came when National Institute for Materials Science researchers found that an iron-based compound became superconductive after being soaked in alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine and sake.

Red wine was the hands-down winner in producing the desired physical effect, although no one is quite clear yet on how exactly it worked, researchers at the institute in Tsukuba east of Tokyo said.

The ratio at which compounds became superconductive was seven times higher when dipped in red wine than for ethanol or water. It was four times higher for white wine and three times higher for beer, sake and whisky.

“The better it tastes, the more effective it is,” the institute’s lead researcher Yoshihiko Takano said, while allowing that taste is subjective.

“There may be a connection between the substance we humans sense as a taste and the substance that induces superconductivity,” Takano said. “It is as if a detective was tracking down the culprit in a suspense story — the guy is in the glass, but we still don’t know if he is acting alone or conspiring with others.”

The team hopes the find will help in the quest to one day unleash the potential of superconductivity to build power infrastructure that reduces energy use and mankind’s reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels.

When an electric current passes through a conductor such as copper and silver, part of the charge is lost as heat, a loss that increases with the distance the charge travels.

In superconductivity — first discovered in mercury in 1911 — electrical resistance suddenly drops to zero in some metals when they are cooled to near absolute zero (-273?C).

“This may sound like the stuff of dreams, but electricity generated by solar power in the Gobi could be transported to the other side of the globe,” Takano said.

“The sun is always shining somewhere on Earth, and the dream is for electricity to be transported to far-away places with no power loss. Imagine there is a ring of superconductive cables along the equator with solar cells attached at certain places. If there were branches, clean electricity could be dispatched to the remotest rural areas,” the researcher said.

Takano’s team made their discovery when they put tablets of an iron-based compound called Fe(Te,S) into alcoholic drinks at an office party a year ago.

The team found that after being soaked for 24 hours in red wine or other alcoholic beverages, the compound became superconductive when cooled to about -265?C.

Takano plans to present his findings at a European conference in September in The Hague, near Leiden where Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity 100 years ago.

Tomoaki Fujii, who heads equity research at Morningstar Japan, said superconductivity is “a technology with high expectations,” but said that it is “a bit too early” to start buying related stocks just now.

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