Researchers at the University of Houston have just won a new round of funding for a $4 million wind power project that is on track to solve a key wind energy transportation conundrum: how to use superconducting wire without running afoul of the magnetic field generated by wind turbines. The new grant of $900,000 from the Department of Energy comes on top of two earlier DOE grants totaling $3.1 million. If the project is a success, it will lead to the commercial production of low-cost superconducting wire for wind turbine generators, and that will open up the field for low-cost wind power, especially offshore wind turbines.
Superconductors and Magnetic Fields
Wire made of superconducting material can transport an electrical current with virtually no resistance, so it is far more efficient than conventional copper wire.
That would seem to make superconducting wire an ideal material for wind turbine generators, but the problem is that wind turbines kick up a magnetic field.
The field creates “flux lines” in the superconducting wires, resulting in significantly lower performance.
The University of Houston team, led by mechanical engineering professor Venkat “Selva” Selvamanickam, has the goal of developing a high-temperature superconducting wire that can achieve significant gains in efficiency despite the magnetic field, and compete with copper wire on cost.
The result will be a powerful but lightweight, low-maintenance, high-efficiency generator with a power rating of 10 megawatts or more, which would be ideal for use in offshore wind turbines.
On Track for Low Cost Wind Power
So far, the three-year project has far outpaced expectations. The end goal is to achieve a 400% performance improvement in superconducting wire, with an interim goal of 50% by the end of 2012.
The team beat the interim goal by a wide margin, achieving a 65% gain by the end of September.
The pace of progress was apparently so promising that ARPA-E, the advanced energy research agency that administers the grant, accelerated the grant disbursement ahead of schedule.
That doesn’t exactly bode well for foes of wind power, who have been lobbying Congress to hold off on extending a key tax credit for wind power. Though the lack of an extension will put a severe crimp in local wind power projects, it might not have so great an effect on massively scaled, high-efficiency offshore projects developed with the help of advanced superconducting technology.
We Built This!
The University of Houston project is yet another example of public funding for beneficial technology that makes the leap from laboratory to general use through a collaboration with private sector partners.
For this project, UH has partnered with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the companies SuperPower Inc. (UH’s Selva is also Chief Technology Advisor for SuperPower), Tai-Yang Research, and TECO-Westinghouse Motor Company.
Aside from leading to high-volume, low-cost wind power, the new superconducting wire could also be used to develop or improve other electromagnetic devices, such as the superconducting magnet energy storage system project already under way through another Department of Energy grant.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.