Hot wire speeds power to people

UH’s Texas Center for Superconductivity partnered with industry-leading SuperPower, Inc. to transform high temperature superconductor technologies. The project’s goal is to improve efficiency in the power system.

‘Almost anything in the power grid that you can see – cables, transformers, motors, generators – can be more efficient if you use superheating wires,’ said Venkat Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson chair professor of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

By binding multiple strands of wire together into a cable, the superheating cable system can carry five to 10 times more power than copper transmission cable.

The research pays immediate dividends to the industry.

‘It’s not like something that maybe 10 years down the line could be useful. The research areas are something that effects the energy industry here and now,’ Selvamanickam said.

The superconducting material has a wide range of conductivity applications, including manufacturing advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology and improving high-speed, magnetically levitating trains.

Selvamanickam’s primary focus, however, is using the technology to increase electricity transmission.

‘Where this will be beneficial is in very congested areas,’ Selvamanickam said. ‘Any downtown areas where there is no place to dig. They can put a new cable in to satisfy the growing needs of the population. Now they can replace a conventional cable with a superheating cable and immediately get five to 10 times more power through the cable.’

Selvamanickam was Chief Technology Advisor at SuperPower, Inc. and joined the UH faculty in September 2008.

He leads a team of UH researchers in enhancing HTS material he developed as a graduate student at UH and at SuperPower.

Selvamanickam set a world record in conducting amperes per square area as a student at UH, said Research director at TcSUH Wei-Kan Chu.

‘We are very happy [Selvamanickam] returned to the university to be a professor here,’ Chu said. ‘Over the years, he has been a technology leader in making high temperature superconducting wires at SuperPower.’

SuperPower Inc., a subsidiary of Royal Philips Electronics NV, a Dutch conglomerate, makes a high temperature superconducting wire that is expected to increase the efficiency of electricity transmission.

The $1.8 million agreement between the U.S. Department of Energy and SuperPower splits the research cost equally.

The primary cost of the research project is paying for the labor of the researchers. The research assistants, graduate research professors and post-doctoral researchers are being financially compensated for their work, Selvamanickam said.

‘Most of the financing we’ve been seeking is through the stimulus funds,’ Selvamanickam said.

The DOE provides such funds to spur development of ‘smart grid’ technology, which could reduce the loss of electricity along long-distance transmission lines. The less resistant the electrical transmission lines are, the more efficient the entire electric grid becomes.

In moving its research and development division to UH, SuperPower loaned TcSUH unique, state-of-the-art, thin-film process equipment used to make the wire.

‘No other university in the country has this kind of equipment. They also have three of their scientists now working out of Houston,’ Selvamanickam said.

One reason UH was selected for the research agreement was its strong commitment to superconductivity research. The Texas Center for Superconductivity had all the resources required for the project, Selvamanickam said.

TcSUH houses the largest multidisciplinary research program for superconductivity and advanced materials development of any university in the U.S. In addition, TcSUH was enthusiastic about working with an industry leader like SuperPower.

‘One of the themes I saw emerging was more industrial collaboration,’ Selvamanickam said.

Chu believes this interaction with SuperPower and the potential to open HTS cable to the utility and energy industry will move the enter to a higher plateau in its field of study.

‘To start this interaction with the industry is absolutely necessary and SuperPower is one of the leaders in the wire fabrication area,’ Chu said. ‘The high temperature superconducting wire research will bring Paul Chu’s high temperature superconductors closer to the marketplace.’

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