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Selvamanickam Wins Second R&D 100 Award in Three Years

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Toby Weber
Selvamanickam
Selvamanickam

They are called the Oscars of the science world, and a professor with the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has just won his second in three years.

Venkat Selvamanickam, MD Anderson Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering, was recently announced as a co-recipient of a 2012 R&D 100 award, presented by R&D Magazine. A winner in the 2010 competition as well, Selvamanickam and his collaborators at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and SuperPower, Inc., were recognized for their efforts to create superconducting wire that is ideally suited for use in high-power wind turbines.

Like standard copper wire, superconducting wire is used to carry an electrical current. While copper is very good at this task, the atoms in the wire are slightly disorganized, causing a small resistance to the current. As a result some electricity is lost. Superconducting wire prevents this loss by allowing current to travel without the smallest physical hindrance.

Selvamanickam and his collaborators have proven so expert at creating perfectly aligned superconducting materials that they have set multiple performance records with their wires. It is ironic, then, that to create superconductors for use wind turbines this team has introduced deformities into their otherwise perfect materials.

Why is this necessary? As it stands, generators in wind turbines utilize a magnetic field to produce electricity. One way to create this field is by running a current through superconducting wires. This same magnetic field, though, penetrates and moves around within the superconducting wires themselves, lowering the wires’ ability to carry electricity. Because of this inefficiency, superconducting wind turbines must use a significant amount of the wire, driving up the cost of a unit.

“Today if you want to build a superconducting generator, the wire itself will be 60 percent of the generator cost. That’s a no-go,” Selvamanickam said. “If you can make a wire that’s only, say, 20 percent of the total cost, that’s a lot more reasonable.”

Selvamanickam and his collaborators are creating more cost-effective wires by introducing these deformities, which come in the form of nanoscale particles placed throughout the material.

These nanoparticles essentially pin down magnetic field lines within the wire. By locking these lines down, the nanoparticles stop the magnetic field from impacting wire performance.

This approach has proven extremely effective. Already, the group has doubled the performance of superconducing wires operating in a magnetic field. That advance alone could half the cost of superconducting material in a wind turbine.

Selvamanickam and his collaborators are now working to achieve even more impressive results by optimizing this technology. In modifying the nanoparticle type, size, density and placement, they believe they can drive down the cost of these customized superconducting wires even further.

“Our goal is to get a four-fold improvement in performance” said Selvamanickam. “If you get that, then your wire cost and the amount of wire you need to use gets reduced four-fold. We believe that at that cost, superconducting wind generators can be commercially competitive.”

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