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Mechanical Engineering Professor Wins IEEE Award for Superconducting Materials Research

By: 

Audrey Grayson

Venkat “Selva” Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of mechanical engineering, has been named one of the first recipients of the inaugural 2014 IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Dr. James Wong Award for Continuing and Significant Contributions to Applied Superconductor Materials Technology. According to the IEEE website, this award is intended to recognize individuals for “meritorious achievements and outstanding technical contributions” throughout their career in the field of applied superconductor materials technology.

“It was very fulfilling to get the news that I won this award,” Selva said. “This award is intended to honor a body of work, and I began working in this field 27 years ago, so it encompasses the range of all of the work I’ve done and that really means a lot to me.”

When it comes to honoring a career-long body of work relating to superconductor materials, it’s difficult to find an individual who has contributed more to the field than Selva. In fact, Selva’s contributions to the superconductivity field began before he had even completed his Ph.D. at the University of Houston.

Selva earned his M.S. in mechanical engineering and his Ph.D. in materials engineering from the UH Cullen College of Engineering in 1988 and 1992, respectively. Early on in his career as a graduate student at UH, Selva began researching new processes for making bulk superconductors. By the time Selva completed his M.S. at the Cullen College, he had invented a new method for creating bulk superconductors with very high current carrying capacity. Selva and his research partners at UH published these findings in the journal Applied Physics Letters in 1989. The article has been cited over 600 times since then, making it the one of the most-cited scientific paper on the topic of superconductor materials engineering of all time.

After graduating from the Cullen College of Engineering, Selva co-founded SuperPower Inc. in 2000, a company specializing in manufacturing superconducting wire, where he eventually rose to vice president and chief technology officer. While there, he developed a novel method of manufacturing superconducting wires.

Selva’s method consists of depositing a stack of thin film layers ranging from a few nanometers to a few micrometers in thickness on a metallic ribbon at high temperatures, continuously using a reel-to-reel system (much like an old cassette tape). With this technique, Selva and his collaborators developed technologies to convert a brittle ceramic superconductor into a flexible wire that has 300 times the current-carrying capacity of a comparably-sized copper wire. In doing so, Selva and his SuperPower team set multiple world performance records for superconducting materials.

Selva and the SuperPower team were the first to manufacture thin film superconductor wire, which was used in 2008 to power 25,000 households in Albany, N.Y., and now is used by more than 200 institutions around the world for applications including wind generators, energy storage, power transmission cables, magnetically levitated trains, medical imaging and defense applications.

After eight years with SuperPower, Selva made the decision to return to the UH Cullen College of Engineering – and this time, he brought the research division of SuperPower with him.

When Selva returned to the Cullen College in 2008, he started up the Applied Research Hub of the Texas Center for Superconductivity with a $3.5 million grant from the state of Texas Emerging Technology Fund. He established a pilot-scale superconducting wire manufacturing research facility at the UH Energy Research Park with this support.

Nearly every year since his return to UH, Selva and his team have won major awards; In 2009, they received an International Technical Achievement Award from Wire & Cable Technology Magazine. In 2010 and 2012, they won R&D 100 Awards, “the Oscars of Innovation,” from R&D Magazine. In 2009 and 2010, his superconductor wire development program with SuperPower was ranked the top research project in the U.S. Department of Energy’s superconductivity program, as voted on by an international panel of 12 experts in the field.

Through his research and his leadership of the Applied Research Hub at UH, Selva is now pioneering the development of advanced processing techniques for high-performance materials for energy and electronics applications, including high-temperature superconducting thin film wires, thin film photovoltaics and flexible electronics.

Last year, Selva and collaborators with Florida-based Tai-Yang Research Company were awarded a $2.15 million grant develop a superconducting magnetic energy storage (essentially, a device that saves unused electricity for when it’s needed) which stores energy with 95 percent “round trip” efficiency and can quickly discharge the energy it holds. The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) group that supports the development of game-changing technologies, is funding their work.

In addition, Selva has been awarded nearly $4 million from ARPA-E to fund his work into improving the performance of his superconducting wires for high-power wind generators. “We have a very, very aggressive goal in the ARPA-E program to quadruple the performance of the superconductor wire. We have already achieved three-times improvement in performance, so we are almost there. By the end of this year, we’ll definitely see the four-times improvement,” Selva said.  

In this project, Selva and his UH collaborators have teamed up with researchers from SuperPower, the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Tai-Yang Research and TECO-Westinghouse Motor Company to develop wind turbines that use superconducting wire to generate electricity, allowing for more efficient and affordable units.

The problem, however, is that generators in the wind turbines 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 wire's ability to transport electricity, lowering its performance. The result is a lot of wire to make superconducting wind turbines which would make it too expensive to manufacture.

To address this issue, Selva and his collaborators have introduced small particles of non-superconducting material into the superconducting wire. These particles pin down the flux lines, holding them in place. With their movement inside the wire halted, the superconducting material's performance is enhanced.

This three-year project began in 2012, when the team was given 2.1 million for the first 18 months of the contract period. At that point, a review of the team's progress by ARPA-E would have determined whether the team would get the final $1 million to continue their work.

Just nine months into the grant, though, the research team had already achieved 65 percent improvement. ARPA-E administrators were so impressed with the team's early results that they released the final $1 million ahead of schedule and awarded the researchers an extra $900,000 to continue their work.

The success he's experienced since moving into academia, Selva said he owes in great part to the time he spent in industry. "I've brought a lot of the lessons I learned in industry to the table when I came back to UH," said Selva. "I understand what it takes to move a technology past the R&D phase, beyond the valley of death, and into the consumer market. This knowledge helps me every day as a researcher, as a teacher and as a leader at the Applied Research Hub."

In 1996, Selvamanickam received the Presidential Early Career Achievement award from the White House which is the highest award given to scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers. He was named Superconductor Industry Person of the Year in 2004 and has received several R&D 100 awards, along with numerous other awards. He holds 41 U.S. patents and 12 pending U.S. patents. In 2014, Selva was elected to be inducted into the U.S. National Academy of Inventors.

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