The key to revolutionizing America's energy grid may lie inside a 2,000-foot-long, blisteringly cold tube in Suffolk County.
The tube in Holbrook, cooled by liquid nitrogen, contains superconducting cable developed at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton that could change how electricity is generated, stored and transmitted. Think of superconductors as 10-lane highways that may someday replace the dirt roads that are today's copper wires.
The trouble is, no one has figured out how to fully incorporate the stuff into the grid. So researchers are scrambling to learn.
"The race is on," said Qiang Li, a Brookhaven scientist and adjunct professor at Stony Brook University who is among those leading the effort.
In 2008, Brookhaven teamed up with American Superconductor Corp., of Devens, Mass., and the Long Island Power Authority to install the Holbrook line, which was one of the first superconducting cables on the grid. Since then, local scientists have been at the forefront of trying to unravel the mysteries behind the compounds, composed of copper, iron and other elements.
Superconductors date to 1911, when a Dutch physicist discovered that if he cooled mercury to hundreds of degrees below zero, it could transmit electricity without resistance.
In other words, no energy was lost. The potential was vast. Even today, electrical lines leak like perforated garden hoses.
With superconductors, utilities could eliminate blackouts by zapping power to wherever demand spikes. They can improve wind turbines. Bend them into a circle, and superconductors can hold a charge indefinitely, potentially to store up wind and solar power for breezeless nights.
But first, they must be affordable and, ideally, work at higher temperatures. (They still must be cooled to hundreds of degrees below zero.)
Improving them entails learning how they work. Researchers know that the superconductors they've developed for the electrical grid are able to convince electrons to ditch their anti-social habits and cling together in pairs, allowing them to zip along without bumping into ions. Yet, they don't know why.
So at Brookhaven, scientists use technology to watch the electrons at a subatomic level, trying to unveil the magic drawing them together.
"It's considered the biggest challenge in condensed matter physics," said physicist Peter Johnson, who oversees such research at Brookhaven.
"If somebody figures that out, they might win a Nobel Prize."