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Wind Energy Project Wins Early Extension, Bump in Funding from ARPA-E

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By: 

Toby Weber
Selvamanickam
Selvamanickam

A wind energy research team led by the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has made such rapid progress in its work that it has received an accelerated grant extension along with a $900,000 increase in total funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy.

The research effort is helmed by Venkat “Selva” Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor in the college’s mechanical engineering department. Collaborators include SuperPower Inc., the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Tai-Yang Research and TECO-Westinghouse Motor Company.

Their research focuses on developing wind turbines that use superconducting wire to generate and transport electricity, which would allow for more efficient and more affordable units. Superconducting materials carry electricity without any electrical resistance, resulting in no energy lost during transport.

Wind turbines, however, generate magnetic fields, which results in magnetic flux lines – essentially the pull of magnetism –running through and moving within the superconducting wires. These flux lines interfere with the wires’ ability to transport electricity, lowering its performance. As a result, the cost of wind turbines that use superconducting wire is driven up significantly.

In response, Selva and his collaborators are introducing small particles (measuring just a few billionths of a meter) of non-superconducting material into the superconducting wire. These particles essentially pin down the flux lines, holding them in place. With their movement inside the wires halted, the superconducting material’s performance is restored.

The ultimate goal for the three-year project is to improve the performance of superconducting wire used in wind turbines by 400 percent. To achieve this, the research team was given $2.1 million for the first 18 months of the grant period, set to end in June 2013. At that point, a review of their progress would have determined whether the team would get the final $1 million to continue their work.

Just nine months into the grant, though, the researchers had already achieved impressive results. While they were aiming for a 50 percent improvement by the end of this year, they hit the 65 percent mark by the end of September.

ARPA-E administrators were so impressed by the team’s progress that they released the final $1 million ahead of schedule and also awarded the researchers an additional $900,000 to perform their work

“They saw the progress we made in the first 3 quarters,” Selva said. “They said that rather than wait until June of next year to make a decision, they would give us a performance-based acceleration of the award. Not only that, they actually found more funds, so they increased the total project to $4 million.”

The extra funding, he said, will allow the group to accelerate its research and bring more people into the research team via graduate student and post-doctoral positions.

“This is something I feel very happy and proud about,” said Selva. “Just getting funding is a good thing, but to get funded based on performance, on what you’ve achieved is very gratifying.”

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