Superconductor Week speaks with Venkat Selvamanickam

Copyrighted material.  Reprinted with permission of Superconductor Week

Originally printed March 20, 2011, Vol 25, No 3.



Superconductor Week Speaks with Venkat Selvamanickam
Superconductor Week spoke recently with Venkat Selvamanickam, Professor at the University of Houston (UH) and Chief Technology Advisor at SuperPower, regarding the process of transferring HTS and LTS technology into the grid. Selva was relocated from Schenectady, NY, along with SuperPower’s R&D division, to UH in 2009 under a research agreement between SuperPower and UH to collaborate on the development of SuperPower’s 2G wire (see Superconductor Week, Vol 23, No 18). 
Selva is heavily involved with the Applied Research Hub (ARH) at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH (TcSUH). ARH was established to provide new infrastructure and capabilities for applied research and to attract companies to engage in collaborative R&D. 
ARH Seeking Partners in Private Industry
Each partner from private industry that chooses to conduct R&D at ARH represents a “spoke” on the “hub.” There are currently two primary fields of research at the ARH: wire development, which involves industrial partners such as SuperPower and Bruker (see Superconductor Week, Vol 23, No 22), and biomedical initiatives, including partners like Baylor College of Medicine, Methodist Hospital, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Texas’s Health Science Center. 
“We are constantly looking for opportunities to expand the number of partners we have at ARH,” said Selva. “SuperPower remains ARH’s primary partner in the field of 2G wire development.
“Through our partnership we have developed improved wire that can operate at high magnetic fields, roughly two times better than previous wires (see Superconductor Week, Vol 23, No 19). This wire has been transferred to SuperPower’s production line in Schenectady. We are seeking to improve the magnetic field tolerance and current carrying capacity of the wires we work on, and focus on materials that lend themselves to high volume production without much capital investment.
“Our biomedical hub recently spun off a small company called Endomagnetics, and some of my colleagues at TcSUH continue to be involved in their operations. There are a number of opportunities, on the biomedical side of things, to use superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) technology in medical imaging systems.”
Selva: ARH to Expand SC Device R&D
Last year, ARH was awarded a $3.5 million ETF grant by the State of Texas intended as seed money to finance expansion (see Superconductor Week, Vol 24, No 7). In particular, the money helped fund two new faculty positions and UH’s acquisition of a business park adjacent to its campus which will provide a 70-acre, 14-building complex of test bed space and offices for ARH partners.
“We are hoping to expand our involvement in the development of superconducting devices,” said Selva. “Through the ETF grant we have opened two faculty positions that we are in the process of filling. One should happen imminently, starting the fall of this year. 
“That position will be in applied superconductivity. By adding another person whose expertise lies in applied superconductivity, we are hoping to attract more partners on the device side, and that could be high field magnets, superconducting generators, there are a number of possibilities. As we expand our partners and develop more of these innovative technologies, we expect the technology developments will generate revenues that could become a significant source of ARH funding.
“We are already involved in a couple R&D projects focused on superconducting fault current limiters (SFCL) and superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) devices (see Superconductor Week, Vol 24, No 16). As we expand further into device R&D, I expect we’ll make a tangible mid-term impact, in particular helping to devise device configurations that are more efficient and better suited to meeting application needs.”
Selva also said that work was ongoing at the new research park: “There are already things happening at the energy research park, we have announced that SuperPower will be establishing a specialty products facility there. I am involved in setting up another building that will modify technologies developed for superconductivity for broader application. 
“Two technologies we will be looking at are portable tapes and roll-to-roll processing, as we feel they could be of benefit in other applications. I project that in 3 to 5 years we will see more technology originally designed for superconducting wires being applied to some other fabrication constant. We are setting up a metal organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD) system at ARH, not only for superconductor but also semiconductor roll-to-roll processing.”  
Selva: Market Penetration Lags Behind Technology Advances
Selva said that technological advancements over the last 20 years had surpassed market penetration: “There has been tremendous progress on superconducting technology, materials science, processing, and cabling over the last 20 years. This is a huge success, considering that HTS materials have been very tough material systems to work on.
“However, market penetration has lagged, and this is largely due to the conservative nature of the utility companies. Market penetration is lower than what we would have projected 20 or even 15 years ago. The focus prior to roughly 2005 was on getting superconducting technology accepted by the utility companies, but this has been a difficult nut to crack for a number of reasons. 
“However, over the last 5 years people have started to understand that there are some areas where superconductivity can be adopted faster, and these are the areas to focus on. Examples include high magnetic field, renewable energy, alternative energy and energy storage applications. The solution is to look to areas where there is a pull from the market to get the technology adopted and not just the support of researchers and advocates. 
“Another reason for optimism is that 2G wire has only been available over the last 3 years or so. It’s remarkable how challenging material processing has been, it has taken us quite awhile to get to the stage where we can make HTS tapes in kilometer lengths. Our biggest challenge remains making the wire cost competitive. 
“It will take a leap in the technology to get the cost-performance curve to decrease at a steeper rate than what we will see from scaling up the technology. We know a lot more now about the economics of HTS tapes, about scalability, about all that kind of stuff, than we did 3 to 5 years ago. We will continue to improve the wire, to push down the cost-performance curve, to the point where it is truly competitive, and in the meantime there are shorter-term market opportunities to transition HTS-based technology to commercial use.”
Selva: Coupling SFCL to Other Devices may be Wave of the Future
Selva said SFCL technology had also been stalled by the conservative nature of utility companies: “SFCL technology was seen early-on as an opportunity for superconductors because there are not many equivalent devices available. However, the technology has been stalled by conservatism on the part of utility companies. In my own informal conversations with people involved in the electric grid but not part of the superconductivity community, I’ve found universal interest in SFCLs, they’re something people want to have.
“There is a DOE-funded project at ARH involving SuperPower, Waukesha Electric and Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) to develop SFCLs that are coupled to large-scale transformers (see Superconductor Week Vol 24, No 10), and this may be the wave of the future. The project doesn’t deal with the SFCL as a stand-alone device, but incorporates it as a bonus feature into another device that utilities need anyway. One benefit to this configuration is that you can get rid of oil in the transformer, which can cause fires.
“The fact that the DOE selected this project shows that even outside the superconductivity community there is interest in SFCL technology. Utilities generally are looking to avoid any drastic changes to what they do, so if you can insert a novel feature, like a SFCL, into a device they already commercially use, that makes it more appealing.”
Selva: Opportunities for HTS in Renewable Energy
Selva stated that he saw the strong potential for HTS-based devices in renewable energy markets: “Looking at the next couple decades, I see applications in the energy and renewable energy markets, and in particular wind energy, representing a big opportunity for HTS. The ability to build wind turbines rated at 10 MW and greater using HTS generators is very attractive to a lot of companies, and this is especially true when dealing with offshore turbines. Looking at the turbine generator, going to twice the power and half the size and weight is a big benefit. 
“Energy storage is another big opportunity, as the DOE is investing in developing energy storage methods for solar and wind energy. There isn’t one single technology that is applicable for storage over the entire time spectrum of what is needed, whether it’s storage for a few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours or any given period of time. There is ongoing work on batteries and supercapacitors, and now SMES, though it is a relative newcomer to the field. 
“If we can create a SMES prototype that is a highly effective and efficient storage device and that has the ability to store things for a fairly long time, at least one or two cycles without degradation, that would be a helpful demonstration for promoting the technology. Under the current SMES project involving ARH, we’re dealing with a 30 T magnet operating at 4.2 K, so we’re really pushing the limits of the wire, and of course the price-performance remains a big issue.
“Maintaining a high Ic at the 30 T range is a challenge, and the AC losses are also a factor we are working on. We are currently mainly involved in the wire side of SMES development, and the potential is there for making wire for SMES.”
Selva: Room to Improve YBCO Tapes
Selva said there was still plenty of room to improve YBCO tapes: “With regard to SMES, I still believe that the 2G YBCO-based materials are our best bet. On the performance side, we know that they are definitely superior to many other materials, and the beauty of the 2G wire is that there is still a lot of room for improvement. Improvements on the wire side for some of the other materials have not been all that impressive over the last few years, whereas improvements have been and are still being made on the YBCO tapes. 
“Bi-2212 is a material that can be made into a round wire form, which is very attractive, and some of the work aimed at high field applications at low temperatures is promising. Not much time has been spent focusing on high field, low temperature applications, and on wire development for that. The DOE labs in general have tended to focus on HTS at low to medium fields. 
“What we are looking to research here is operations at 30 K, 40 K and maybe at 4.2 T, where we can really push the materials even farther, and there are still opportunities to do that with a number of materials, including MgB2. YBCO material is already really good, and the potential for further improvements remains high, especially if we look at improving its characteristics at low temperatures and high fields.”
This interview was the first in Superconductor Week’s Millenium Interview series
(see Superconductor Week, Vol 25, No 1). The audio will be made available online at our website,     

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