Superconductivity was discovered in 1911 and has perplexed, astounded and inspired scientists since, but to most it can be thought of as "frictionless" electricity. In conventional electricity, heat is generated by friction as electrons (electric charge carriers) collide with atoms and impurities in the wire. This heating effect is good for appliances such as toasters or irons, but not so good for most other applications that use electricity.
In superconductors, however, electrons glide unimpeded between atoms without friction. If scientists and engineers ever harness this phenomenon at or near room temperature in a practical way, untold billions of dollars could be saved on energy costs.
That's a big "if." Superconductivity is still impractical in routine engineering use because it requires a very cold environment attainable only with the help of expensive cryogens such as liquid helium or liquid nitrogen. Past discoveries have helped scientists inch their way up the thermometer, from superconductors requiring minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit (or 4.2 Kelvin) to newer materials that superconduct at around minus 200 degrees F (138 K) Ñ still frigid, but substantially warmer and more practical.