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Advancing wind power with superconductivity

My name is Ruben Fair and I decided to write this blog as today we announced that we (GE Global Research) have been awarded the first phase of a 2-year, $3 million project from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a superconducting wind turbine generator that could support large-scale wind applications in the 15MW range.

A concept drawing of a direct drive wind generator using superconducting magnet technology
A concept drawing of a direct drive wind generator using superconducting magnet technology

I will be the Principal Investigator on this project and will lead a multidisciplinary team of engineers and scientists from the Electrical Machines lab, Electromagnetics and Superconductivity Lab and Systems Engineering Lab to develop this transformational technology.

Put simply, a superconducting wind turbine generator will be more power dense and more efficient than many of the other technologies currently being used for wind power, not to mention the fact that it reduces our dependence on rare earth materials. Utilizing superconducting technology reduces weight by virtue of the high magnetic fields that can be created by the superconducting field winding and the fact that the heavy iron in the superconducting generator can be reduced. Furthermore, we are proposing to use a novel rotating armature concept for our machine which allows us to employ the proven cryogenic technologies already being used by our healthcare business for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines. As you might imagine, putting a superconducting generator operating at 4.2K (-269oC or -452oF) on top of a turbine tower in the middle of some ocean is no mean feat and just the thought of it tends to give wind farm operators the shudders! So not only have we got to contend with solving all the technical issues, but we will have an uphill struggle to convince the conservative (and rightly so) wind power market that our technology is the way to go if we want to have lower electricity costs and a greener future.

The complete generator including the cryogenic cooling equipment and associated ancillary equipment will have to be ruggedized to withstand the harsh marine environment. Bearing in mind that offshore wind farms are really only accessible once a year, weather permitting, such machines have to be ultra-reliable. GE has designed and built lab scale superconducting machines in the recent past. This latest development gives us an excellent opportunity to get back into this field and tackle some of the key challenges to introducing superconducting technology into the industrial and commercial world.

Yes, I know, we’ve heard it all before – 100 years of superconductivity and what have we got to show for it out in our big bad risk-averse world. Sometimes it takes just one revolutionary concept and a bunch of committed individuals to change people’s perspective and we believe we can do it!

Having spent over 13 years working on laboratory scale superconducting and cryogenic magnet systems and a further 4 years designing and developing superconducting rotating machines in a previous life on another continent altogether, I am thrilled to be able to continue to work in this exciting technology area with such a talented team of individuals at one of the premier research organizations in the world.

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