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Both for building my world's future-tech, and as a passing mickey-take at a certain film, my story now contains Unobtanium, a conveniently vague combination of rare earth metals that is superconducting at temperatures of 50C and currents greater than 10mA/mm². It's ductile, malleable and has a density and sheer/tensile strength roughly comparable to aluminum.

However, because I am opposed to McGuffins (and the story I want to tell isn't about resource-hunting), it is also dirt cheap - the equivalent of four or five modern dollars per kilogram. (ATM, aluminum is ~$1.60/kg)

I can already tell that this would be revolutionary in all sorts of ways. But! If you are someone outside the field of industrial power distribution or similarly high-tech machinery, how will this impact you? (Beyond the price of electricity plummeting like a rock.) Is it possible to improve audio hardware or CPUs by building them out of superconductors? Would this make a Hyperloop more practical? Is there something even more-exotic application that I'm missing?

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  • $\begingroup$ It sounds like your price reference should be a 1-1 with copper (I looked it up, and scrap prices for bare copper wire look to be about $4.50/kg), which is notable because aluminum is restricted to high-power/long-distance apps while copper is the ubiquitous conductor of everyday wiring/appliances/... $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ The only game changer in town that would be noticed by everyone is the revolution in energy storage, if you have the solution and they are dirt cheap the entire human population on Earth starts worshipping you. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ It has nothing to do with making the Hyperloop practical. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 7:19
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    $\begingroup$ This subject feels very broad. Is there anything specific you are looking to understand? It would be better if you could narrow the question down to that. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 10:22

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Bearings

Magnetic bearings are really useful for obvious reasons: they have very little friction, and no wearing parts.

Readily available high-temp superconductors mean that you can have rather strong, passive magnetic bearings, that don't require expensive cryogenic cooling.

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A) Maglev trains. Cheap. Check out this science video and consider the large scale version in cities: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zPqEEZa2Gis

B) Data bandwidth. Electricity moving data as fast as optical cable but without the line-of-sight limitations. I suspect -- you'd have to research this -- massive boost in CPU speeds... and with perfect heat ventilation. Speaking of heat...

C) Heating/cooling buildings. I read a paper a long time ago that said a superconductor has no melting point as long as it can vent heat along its length. In theory, a strand of it could dangle into the sun as long as it stuck far enough out into space, because it distributes heat with zero resistance along its entire length. (It melts when heat moving at speed of light still can't dump fast enough, so not all the way into the sun.)

The point is, if you built walls of this stuff, a modern skyscraper could be evenly heated/cooled perfectly without the need for ductwork. I'm pretty sure this would make for much cheaper and more effective climate control.

D) I don't know the math, but based on the Möbius strip video earlier, you may investigate a rail gun powerful enough to boost to orbit. They're prohibitively expensive with today's materials (according to other answers on this site), but might be viable with room-temp superconductors.

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  • $\begingroup$ awesome answer, but regarding D, even with super conductors you still have to work around 2 body gravity (or "shooting an expolsive payload in to space"), and the wind resistance. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 7:49
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The D Wave quantum computer operates on the principle of quantum annealing by modeling a quantum mechanical superposition using micro-scale superconducting loop circuits and controlling the evolution of the quantum state of the system, i.e. configuring a bank of single-loop, superconducting micro-magnets, managing what they do once they are configured, then reading their state which is effectively a solution space to the "problem" with which the system was initially configured.

This kind of computer is good at solving high-dimensional-search-space kinds of optimization problems which come up a lot in AI, network configuration, minimizing required materials for construction given constraints, protein folding etc.

Here is a list of applications which the D Wave system is targeting.

Bringing down the cost of superconducting material and making it operate a room temperature would dramatically reduce the cost of these devices, from currently ~15$ million to perhaps thousands once mass production takes over.

What will this mean? :D To be perfectly honest, I have no clue what it will mean overall, but as a programmer I can make an educated guess.

The very thing of interest to AI researchers is the learning phase of the core pattern recognition engine. Learning is the slowest part of the process, which makes learning a sort of hurdle to building very smart AIs.

Training takes a long time and the more sophisticated you AI is the more data is required to train it and the longer it takes because the data then has to be processed in more complex ways through more layers of pattern analysis. This makes it difficult to build machines which effectively learn in real time. Consider how sophisticated humans are and note that they do not become that clever over night. It takes a decade or more for a human to begin to recognize complex and subtle patterns which we attribute to high intelligence - all the while streaming in high definition audio, video, tactile information and chemical signals through the ears, eyes, skin, nose and mouth, processing that information, sifting out information and learning patterns, then sifting out complex patterns and combining them to discover and identify more subtle patterns in the stream of every day life.

Classical computers running state-of-the-art software, for the purpose of self-driving cars for a specific example, have been in training for millions of miles, many decades in human terms, close to a lifetime, where as human drivers become proficient at driving in perhaps less than a decade (debatable I know, but still, don't throw any wrenches at me you driving critics, it's only a rough estimate, no need to start a flame war here).

If quantum computers can rival or even surpass the learning rate of humans, let alone current software, then it's either a tremendous win or a looming resignation and self-defeat for humanity - all depending on your perspective on technology and humanity. Don't worry yourself too much about it though, some of the smartest people on the planet are also concerned about this and are working hard to make sure it goes well. Generally speaking, so called futurists, particularly those associated with transhumanism, call this point in the near future the "Singularity". If the smart people get it wrong, such that we are not adequately prepared for such events, then it can be assumed that humanity did it's best to avoid the potential calamity of super AIs calling the shots.

Though supposing it goes well, we will all have hyper intelligent personal assistants who do not judge us and who support us in our every endeavor and even perhaps admire us for what we were able to accomplish without ourselves possessing superintelligence. These personal assistants will not only calm and reassure us, but they will give us all of the tools and information we will need to learn, to grow, to change, to become something more than human if we so desire - we are already on that path without these AIs helping us.

So presumably if your superconducting material becomes suddenly available, it will suddenly lower the cost of high technology and make it ubiquitous in a few years. The result of that will not be much from the futurist's perspective, an anticipated change, but merely sooner than anticipated though no more impactful. The suddeness would represent a blip of a decade, perhaps two on a scale of a century of innovation, after which many "humans" likely wouldn't be very human any more to speak of anyway, but something different, more technological, more engineered.

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This question is too broad in asking for all possible results of a new thing.

I would like to point out, as I have noted in many other posts, that superconductors will be a transformative technology for space construction. Flux pinning and loops “inflated” and stiffened via a current will change everything about how structures are built and deployed.

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