Superconducting transformers for the grid

Superconductivity (the ability to conduct electricity without loss of energy – no resistance) is still one of those relatively mysterious properties of some materials that scientists continually test. Some try to find new superconducting materials. Some research materials that become superconducting at higher temperatures (most materials need to be cooled to nearly absolute zero). Others attempt to produce superconducting effects without the huge laboratory apparatus – in effect looking for miniature superconducting elements. It’s this latter work on small superconducting devices that may be leading to a major new approach to the power grid – superconducting transformers.

It’s a sign that a technology has moved rather far along when a government funds a real-world demonstration. In this case, the U.S. Department of Energy is putting up $10.7 million to support a consortium (University of Houston, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Southern California Edison, Inc., Waukesha Electric Systems, Inc., and SuperPower, Inc.) building a “fault current limiting superconducting transformer.” Let’s take that phrase backwards. Power grid transformers, which you can see on almost every street, are used to step down voltage coming from transmission lines into voltages usable in homes and businesses. A superconducting transformer, at least in theory, can do its job of stepping voltage up or down without losing any energy in the process. It does this by using superconducting wires for the transformer coils. Superconducting transformers are not new, indeed the first were built around 1995, but the drive to make them practical at large scale is a new effort. Part of this practicality and especially for this project is to make superconducting transformers fault current limiting (FCL), which means that the nature of the superconducting transformer process will automatically prevent melt-downs and other damage caused by massive fluctuations (faults) in the electrical current, such as caused by a lightning strike.

“The project is for a fault current limiting (FCL) superconducting transformer. Waukesha Electric will build the transformer, SuperPower will manufacture the superconducting wire that will be used in the transformer, and will collaborate on the development of a new wire architecture and testing of its functionality with the Texas Center of Superconductivity at the University of Houston, said Venkat (Selva) Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering. “We look forward to seeing our technology employed in a physical device when the transformer is installed four years from now in California’s largest grid at the Southern California Edison utility substation.”

[Source: Nanotechnology Today]

This is a project with practical intentions – to turn high-tech, near leading-edge science (small superconductors) into large scale application. If it works as expected, it becomes one of the projects opening the door to the replacement of virtually every power grid transformer in the world. Why? It will save a lot of money. The superconducting transformers are smaller, lighter, easier to install, cost less to repair and maintain, don’t lose (much) power, don’t use toxic chemicals, and don’t burn or blow up. What’s not to like, if they can be shown to work on the large scale?

The project has the look of many large scale high-tech projects in the future. Men in space, whether in the USA, India, China, or Russia look a lot like this and will become more so in the next decade as the U.S. broadens (or dilutes, depending on your opinion) its space program to include commercial space interests. The world’s power grids, which are mostly in need of serious upgrading, more than qualify for such large scale projects.

Research Spectrum

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