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Scaling Super-conductivity — Q&A with T.J. Wainerdi

Superconductors have been around for decades now — think the Large Hadron Collider, or an MRI. Yet while most superconducting wiring and other material requires extremely cold conditions (around -450 °F) to enable electrical current to flow indefinitely without resistance, the recent development of high-temperature superconductors has opened up the technology to a much broader range of applications.


Due to the greater flexibility and tolerance for temperatures — an order of magnitude higher than low-temperature superconductors — more industries can take advantage of the higher power and efficiency of the superconductivity. High-temperature superconducting cables have up to 10 times the capacity of traditional power cables, for example, taking up less space while more efficiently transmitting electricity.

“Superconducting devices do not simply provide improvements over conventional technologies — they provide unique solutions to challenges that cannot be achieved otherwise,” says T.J. Wainerdi, business director for energy research at the University of Houston.

Still, scaling the technology for widespread industrial use remains a challenge due to the complexity of the manufacturing process. That’s where the UH Energy Research Park comes in, developing the research and production processes to make high-temperature superconducting tape commercially viable.

Working with private-sector partners such as SuperPower, as well as the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), Wainerdi and his colleagues at the University of Houston are developing next-generation technologies and advanced manufacturing processes that hold great promise for industries ranging from renewable energy and fossil fuels to healthcare. He spoke to Ideas Lab about the possibilities of the technology and its impact on U.S. competitiveness globally, as well as the challenges of making it commercially viable:

UH’s pilot plant facilities are on the cutting edge of manufacturing, developing new superconducting technologies. What is your assessment of the state of advanced manufacturing in this country, and how can we stay ahead of the global competition?

While U.S. companies have been the first movers in thin-film superconductor wire manufacturing, several international competitors have made rapid advances in the past three years. Advances made recently in Japan, Korea, Russia and China were enabled by substantial financial investment from their respective governments.

There is a real threat of America losing her leadership position in superconductor manufacturing without a strong drive towards addressing the key technical challenges facing this nascent industry. Formation of an advanced manufacturing technology consortia for high-temperature superconductors would play a critical role in overcoming the most difficult development and commercialization challenges. Overcoming these challenges will result in broad national impacts and provide a sustainable global competitive advantage for U.S. manufacturers. In response to this opportunity, the University of Houston recently formed the Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute, a Texas not-for profit entity, in its pursuit to establish a federally funded Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Institute located at the University of Houston’s Energy Research Park.

ERP has described its role as the “Valley of Death filled in.” How difficult is it to scale these advanced technologies and make them commercially viable?

Superconductor wire manufacturing involves reel-to-reel thin film processing of advanced composites employing a multitude of complex steps and unique custom-made equipment. The superconductor is coated on a flexible metal substrate as a thin film. While the transition of high-temperature superconductor wires from lab-scale to initial manufacturing demonstrations has been accomplished, the transition to a commercial market faces several hurdles. One of the major impediments is the high cost associated with manufacturing due to low yields and limited throughput of the current manufacturing processes. The typical price of high-temperature superconductor wires today is about six times the level that needs to be achieved for commercial market entry.

UH’s researchers collaborate closely with SuperPower and other key players in industry, as well as agencies such as the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. How important is the bringing together of academia with the private and public sectors for developing next-generation technologies?

Solving manufacturing challenges is capital intensive, and superconductor wire companies have limited cash resources for overcoming these cross-cutting challenges. The value chain from equipment and material manufacturers to end users is scattered and needs to be aggregated. Development of an advanced manufacturing institute to leverage public and private resources in order to find solutions to these manufacturing challenges is paramount to helping the nation solve its most complex problems facing the energy sector, providing innovative solutions to increase its defense posture, and expanding the economy by creating a pipeline of high-paying jobs.

From wind power and other renewables to oil and gas, UH’s technologies are applicable across the whole spectrum of the energy sector. How key will developing new technologies be for ensuring sustainable global energy supplies?

Developed in the United States, high-temperature superconductors have the potential to provide multiple commercial solutions to a broad spectrum of sectors of the U.S. economy — such as energy, defense, industrial applications, communications and medicine. In the energy sector, high-temperature superconductor devices have the potential to benefit both renewable and non-renewable energy industries, accelerate introduction of smart-grid hardware applications and improve sustainability through enhanced energy efficiency, high power density, less CO2 emission, better power quality, and improved resiliency and security of the power grid.

Superconducting devices do not simply provide improvements over conventional technologies — they provide unique solutions to challenges that cannot be achieved otherwise. Superconductor cables can be used to efficiently transmit power over long distances from remote sources of wind, solar and nuclear power plants; deliver five to 10 times more power to congested metropolitan areas; and vastly improve the production of unconventional petroleum reserves with a substantial reduction in water consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

More specifically, the feasibility of offshore wind turbines operating at 10 megawatt hours (MW) and higher improves because of the reduction in size and weight by 50 percent when using superconducting generators. Superconducting magnetic energy storage devices have the very real potential to enable grid-scale energy storage for effective deployment of intermittent renewable energy sources, since they provide the benefits of rapid charging and discharging large amounts of power at higher efficiency and with a much longer lifetime than conventional grid-located batteries. Finally, a substantial reduction in water consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, while increasing production of North American heavy oil deposits, can also be realized by combining superconducting subsurface heaters and power cables — thereby securing America’s energy independence from geopolitically unstable and unfriendly oil-producing regions of the world.

Top image: Courtesy of University of Houston

T.J. Wainerdi directs strategic planning, economic development, project management, and public-private partnerships for the University of Houston’s Tier 1 research programs, with a current focus on superconducting power and semiconducting energy device applications. In addition, he currently represents University of Houston as a member of the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America’s (RPSEA) Executive Committee and Board of Directors. Over the past four years, he has led teams comprised of both industrial and academic personnel in the establishment and execution of over $20 million dollars of public and privately funded research and infrastructure projects, including a $5.1 million superconducting wind generator technology development program sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E). In addition, he formed and led the University’s minerals management organization to secure oil and gas royalty revenue streams that exceed $1 million annually.


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