Every few months, a tech announcement sets the internet astir with the promise of, well, new hope. While the news cycle usually feels like a barrage of bad news, especially as 2023 has unleashed a wave of extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, it makes sense that we cling to any good news. Especially when it pertains to a breakthrough that portends significant advancement in the energy transition.
For example? Last year, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made a ruckus by announcing a nuclear fusion ‘breakthrough.’ That announcement has come and gone; as humans do, we ingested the news, adjusted to a new ‘homeostatic’ norm, and moved on. I broke that down in greater detail here.
This week? The news that set Twitter (in particular) ablaze pertained to a new paper that claims scientists discovered a superconductive material that works at ambient room temperature and pressure.
I’m no expert in superconductors, but they’re essential for a host of energy applications. Superconductors are materials that experience no or little electric resistance (under certain conditions), making them useful in various electricity-related applications, from transmission technology to fusion reactors. Most superconductive materials require extreme temperatures and or / pressure to maintain their superconductivity.
That’s why the discovery of a superconductive material that works at room temperature and ambient pressure would be a significant advancement; it could accelerate nuclear fusion development or help create lossless electricity transmission. Typical loss rates between transformers, transmission, and electricity distribution can be higher than 10%. And the further electricity needs to be transmitted the higher loss rates can climb.
Overshadowed by the other superconductor news, U.S.-based VEIR raised $24.9M in extended Series A round funding for its superconductor electricity transmission technology this week. The company also unveiled a complete power line to demonstrate its technology in the physical world.
VEIR’s pitch is that its superconductor transmission technology can dramatically reduce both loss rates of electricity transmission over long distances and the physical footprint of transmission infrastructure. The latter is essential considering how difficult building transmission lines in the U.S. has historically been. Between navigating environmental reviews, rights of way, and other integral processes in infrastructure deployment, many long-distance and high-voltage transmission projects have taken decades to complete (paywall) or foundered entirely.
To achieve these technological gains, VEIR employs high temperature superconductors (‘HTS’) to reduce resistance in transmission. The name is a touch misleading. The temperatures required are still quite cold; ‘high temperature’ here refers to the fact that the temperatures are warmer than other past attempts at superconductive tech, not that they’re inherently hot.
One principal challenge with employing HTS has been the temperatures required for superconductivity. Managing said temperatures requires complicated and expensive cooling technology. VEIR’s primary innovation lies in their “evaporative cryogenic cooling,” which it claims is up to 20x more efficient than past cooling technologies for HTS. As per their website:
VEIR’s innovations enable reliable, cost effective HTS transmission over very long distances through narrow rights–of–way, connecting lowest cost renewable resources to where they’re needed, when they’re needed.
In their demonstration this week, VEIR showed off a 100-foot overhead power line that leveraged its technology, successfully energized, and carried 4,000 Amperes of electrical current, marking a first for an overhead superconducting power line.
I first saw Tim Heidel, CEO of VEIR, speak at MIT this spring. I did not guess then that his company would have a tech demonstration at this scale within months of that event.
Of course, there’s a vast gulf between a 100-foot power line and a 100-mile one (let alone a 1,000-mile one). Plus, we aren’t privy to insight into the demo’s cost.
Still, studies suggest the U.S. must double its transmission capacity to fully valorize the federal funding for clean energy unlocked by the IRA. Elon Musk also weighed in this week (he’s everywhere!), stating electricity transmission will need to triple in coming decades.
To that end, technology like VEIR’s, which could make transmission 5-10x more efficient, would make this tech build-out more tenable.
Given the scale of the challenges ahead, I imagine we’ll see significant public sector support for VEIR alongside the private sector support they received in their Series A round.
Which is key. The area VEIR will face the most *resistance* is not in scaling their tech. Instead, I imagine it will be corralling all the stakeholders, ranging from utilities to grid operators, that need to align to build transmission.