Why does electricity move along wires? This is one of those questions where the answer is relatively simple—the wires are made of conductive metal—but the meaning behind the answer isn't always well-understood. Conductive metals are conductive because of things going on at the tiny scale of atoms and electrons. If you want to understand superconductivity, and what red wine has to do with any of this, you need to understand this part first.
You know how an atom is set up. There's a nucleus, made up on protons and neutrons. Electrons circle the nucleus like a cloud. In conductive metals, though, those electrons aren't tightly locked to any one nucleus. Instead, a conductive wire is a bit like an electron river, in which nuclei float like buoys. "Generating" electricity really just means "making the river flow", getting those electrons to move along from one nucleus to another. That's how electrcity is able to get from the power plant to your house.
But it's not all smooth sailing. As those electrons travel, they encounter resistance. They bump into one another, slowing down their movement like fender bender slows traffic. There are energy conversions that go along with those little collisions. Where electricity once was, you get some heat. When people talk about "line loss"—the usable energy lost to waste heat as electricity travels over power lines—this is what they're talking about. If we could conduct electricity in a more efficient way, we wouldn't have to generate as much to begin with.
Enter superconductivity. Turns out, there are certain materials that, when to chill them down to just the right temperature, suddenly lose all resistance. Instead of a windy, jumbly river slowly moving across the land, you have a straight, fast shot to the sea. More astoundingly, you can turn some ordinary metals into superconductors by exposing them to booze. From Technology Review:
Last year, a group of Japanese physicists grabbed headlines around the world by announcing that they could induce superconductivity in a sample of iron telluride by soaking it in red wine. They found that other alcoholic drinks also worked--white wine, beer, sake and so on--but red wine was by far the best.
Now Deguchi and co have repeated the experiment with different types of red wine to see which works best. They've used wines made with a single grape variety including gamay, pinot noir, merlot, carbernet sauvignon and sangiovese.
It turns out that the best performer is a wine made from the gamay grape--for the connoisseurs, that's a 2009 Beajoulais from the Paul Beaudet winery in central France.
Learn why a 2009 Beauoulais makes such a big difference by reading the full story at Technology Review.
Learn more about electricity, line losses, and waste heat by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.
Via DJ Patil
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.