News

UH Bringing Fusion Energy to Commercial Reality

By: 

Jeannie Kever
Venkat Selvamanickam will lead a $1.5 million project to develop high temperature superconducting magnets made from low-cost raw materials and capable of handling high currents in a magnetic field greater than 20 Tesla.
Venkat Selvamanickam will lead a $1.5 million project to develop high temperature superconducting magnets made from low-cost raw materials and capable of handling high currents in a magnetic field greater than 20 Tesla.

Despite growing scientific and commercial interest in fusion as an on-demand energy source – producing emissions-free energy through the fusion of hydrogen atoms – significant obstacles remain. A researcher from the University of Houston has joined an effort by the U.S. Department of Energy to jumpstart the technology.

Venkat Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering, will lead a $1.5 million project to develop high temperature superconducting magnets made from low-cost raw materials and capable of handling high currents in a magnetic field greater than 20 Tesla, a unit used to measure the strength of magnetic fields. (The earth’s magnetic field, by comparison, is about 0.0001 Tesla.)

The work is part of a $29 million program through DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, intended to close fusion-specific technological gaps to accelerate deployment of a commercially viable fusion system.

The sun is the best-known example of fusion, producing energy through the fusion of hydrogen atoms. Duplicating that on earth, however, is complicated. For one thing, it requires a way to contain the resulting plasma, which can reach 1 million degrees Centigrade.

Superconducting magnets can contain the plasma, Selvamanickam said, but no system has been designed to implement the technology on a large scale at affordable cost.

That’s where he comes in. Selvamanickam is well-known for his work to advance technologies using high temperature superconducting tapes, including their use in wind turbines, industrial motors, power cables and other applications.

Fusion is a new challenge. “Without these superconductors, fusion is not possible,” he said. “It is an enabling technology. If it works, there is going to be huge demand for the superconducting tapes if we can lower the cost.”

His goal is to reduce the cost of the high temperature superconductors by a factor of 30.

Smaller fusion systems have the potential to lower the cost, but Selvamanickam said that will require more powerful superconducting magnets in order to contain the plasma and increase the power density of the energy produced at smaller scale.

“Our project is to demonstrate that it works,” he said. “We know these magnets can operate in a higher magnetic field, but they are also extremely expensive.”

Making superconductor magnets that can withstand the powerful magnetic fields needed to implement fusion, at a dramatically lower cost, would make commercialization economically viable, he said.

That could play an important role in global efforts to reduce climate-damaging emissions such as carbon and methane. Selvamanickam said the use of fusion energy would also avoid a complication hindering the larger-scale deployment of wind or solar energy: It doesn’t require an energy storage system, as it can be produced on-demand.

“Fusion is a wonderful technology,” he said. “But it’s really demanding in terms of the materials that are required. They have to operate in an extreme environment.”

Faculty: 

Department/Academic Programs: 

Related News Stories

Implantable Device Can Monitor and Treat Heart Disease

Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UH, led a group of researchers that developed a cardiac patch made from fully rubbery electronics that can be placed directly on the heart to collect electrophysiological activity, temperature, heartbeat and other indicators, all at the same time.

Researchers Report Rubbery Bioelectronic Cardiac Patch

Pacemakers and other implantable cardiac devices used to monitor and treat arrhythmias and other heart problems have generally had one of two drawbacks – they are made with rigid materials that can’t move to accommodate a beating heart, or they are made from soft materials that can collect only a limited amount of information.

Mechanical Engineering earns #6 spot for value in College Factual 2021 ranking

College Factual has named the Mechanical Engineering program at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering as the sixth-best value school for the major.

The Mechanical Engineering program at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering ranked No. 6 in College Factual’s most recent rankings for the best value schools for majors.

According to statistics provided by College Factual, this puts the program in the top 5 percent of the country for Mechanical Engineering students seeking a bachelor’s degree. The school improved its ranking by nine slots from last year’s ranking of No. 15.