Want superconductivity? Add red wine.

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

Image: Some rights reserved by krossbow


    1. As someone for whom French orthography appears to consist of random letters jumbled together, I apologize in advance. You might think that I, as a native English speaker who writes words such as “might,” may have some appreciation; as it turns out, I do not. As an example, and I mean no personal disrespect to you, but your last name… alas!

  1. Uh-huh… yeah, sure! _Of course_ the best ones were not some non-fit-for-consumtion alcohol, but french wines.

    1. That was my question too (though actually they are processing pellets not wires of FeTeS in wine.)

      Here is the paper Alcoholic beverages induce superconductivity in FeTe1 – xSx where they announced the discovery. In it they call it “amazing” but give no hint about why someone chanced to change the necessary water treatment to booze treatment.

      Maybe they were inspired by what I vaguely recall of the famous “tomato sandwich incident” where someone who grew frustrated that a chemical reaction only worked some of the time threw a tomato sandwich into it and found that that caused it to work every time.

      1. From Fig. 3 in the paper, it appears that the material isn’t superconductive at all unless first processed in hot water/ethanol.

        So perhaps the great leap wasn’t in using red wine.  Instead it was in replacing the known hot water/ethanol step with other hot ethanol mixtures already handy in the lab.   I’m betting Saki.

  2.  To be fair, I didn’t read very far into this (as in, the title and part of the first paragraph)… but I understand this to mean I will be some kind of super hero by drinking copious amounts of red wine.

    Noted, and thank you!

    1. I will be some kind of super hero by drinking copious amounts of red wine

      Indeed… This is what happens to me when I drink a good amount of wine…  the electricity flows through and alongside me…

  3. The true story must be interesting.   Another accident like Penicillin?  Goodyear spilling a latex mixture on his woodstove.  The true genius then is in testing your department-party-contaminated samples, rather than throwing them out as any normal person would.

    Also, conductivity isn’t hard to grasp once the usual misconceptions are cleaned up.  “Conductor” is correctly defined as “medium which contains mobile charges.”  Any electrically charged object is a conductor, as long as it’s free to move around.  A pile of charged styrofoam peanuts is a conductor, since an applied voltage will make the peanuts leap through the air (and, motion of charged styrofoam is called electric current.)   The quantum weirdness only appears when we start talking about *metal* conduction, as opposed to non-electron conductors such as salt water, charged raindrops, etc.

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