Oil extraction could be vehicle to commercialize long-sought technology

HOUSTON -- A small room in a former warehouse on the University of Houston campus is home to a machine that its makers say can mass-produce superconducting wire, a technology long sought by the power industry.

This sleek, expensive contraption is unable to churn out the wire at a cost and volume that could bring superconductivity to the mass market. But T.J. Wainerdi, special assistant to the provost at UH, believes that will happen once they outfit the 40,000 square feet of space found next to this room, all in an effort to finally enable one of the wonders of physics to transform the way energy is produced and transmitted across the world.

While its greatest potential lies in the power grid, mass commercialization of superconductivity may come first via the oil and gas industry, Wainerdi said. Offshore oil and gas producers may find interest, but he and others see a potential market in the Canadian oil sands, as well as in onshore enhanced oil extraction.

"It is tough to get technology to the market. It takes a long time," Wainerdi said. "Our goal is to leverage that [technology] into those first industry applications that can speed that process up."

The oil and gas industry headquartered here, the self-proclaimed "energy capital of the world," could be the key to finally bringing superconducting technology to the mass market, he thinks.

Led by UH College of Engineering professor Venkat Selvamanickam, researchers here are quietly working on what could be the greatest revolution in energy technology since the days of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

Superconductivity is a fascinating phenomenon of quantum mechanics witnessed at larger scales, first discovered by physicists in the early 1900s.

Electricity traveling along a normal wire encounters resistance against the electrons of the atoms that the wire is made up of. Thus, normal cables and wires lose charge along the route, and the longer the transmission line is, the greater the loss of power.

But for a certain class of materials, this resistance disappears completely when they are cooled to extremely low temperatures, near absolute zero on the Kelvin scale in some instances.

At such low temperatures, the electrons of some materials behave strangely, mimicking the behavior of one another in a way that helps current to move along, rather than slowing it down. It's a phenomenon not entirely understood by physicists -- Selvamanickam likened it to two dancers on opposite sides of a great hall trying to match each other's moves but failing. Brought to extreme low temperatures, electrons in superconducting materials "dance" in perfect unison, even when separated by huge distances.

As a result, electrical resistance is brought to zero when these materials are super-cooled. The same amount of charge given to a superconducting wire at one end is received at the other. Tie such wire in a loop and a charge added to it will travel continuously, theoretically forever.

Scientists have grappled for decades trying to figure out a way to use superconductors, which are already used in magnetic resonance imaging technology, for other applications. The technology and its potential have long been understood, but making it work in energy transmission has proved difficult, Selvamanickam explains, because the best superconducting material is a ceramic composite that isn't bendable like traditional copper wiring.

"Everything that uses copper wire, or aluminum wire, you should be able to use superconductors, but the problem was how do you make it flexible?" said Dr. Selva, as he is known around campus. "How do you make it into a long wire, which is flexible, which can be used to wind into cables or coils for generators or motors, transformers, so forth?"

Selva has devised such a method, applying a layer of yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO) thinner than a human hair atop a flat, narrow ribbon, to which other materials are applied as protection and to stabilize the current that it will carry.

This is then encased in tubing filled with liquid nitrogen, necessary to cool the YBCO, a "high-temperature superconductor" that demonstrates zero resistance to electrical currents at temperatures above 77 degrees Kelvin.

Proving research on campus

Selva says he has been working on this technology for more than 20 years, but he and his team may now be getting very close to achieving commercialization, thanks to a $16 million investment made with funds coming from private industry, UH and the federal government.

The research team housed at UH's Energy Research Park, a complex previously owned by the oil field services giant Schlumberger Ltd., is busy trying to enhance the efficiency of the YBCO wire and to bring down the cost of manufacturing it. They may be getting extremely close to making this technology commercially viable, and to prove it, the team is rolling out the technology on their own campus.

An expanding tier-one research university, the University of Houston is facing future power supply problems. To alleviate this, it is adding an additional transformer to a power substation and installing a new power cable to electrify the main campus. This cable will be Selva's superconducting wire, with a conventional backup.

But the technology can be applied to any facet of the energy industry.

"The beauty of superconducting technology is that it can be pretty much used over the entire power delivery system," Selva said. "You can make the generator a lot more efficient. You can make it smaller, lighter."

Superconducting wire could replace standard coils used to generate electricity in turbines of any kind. Thus, a 4-megawatt turbine could be retrofitted or replaced with a smaller, lighter superconducting turbine that churns out up to 10 MW instead.

Superconductivity could be the key to making renewable energy technology competitive with fossil fuels, or even more so. The generating capacity of existing wind farms could be doubled, which is why Selva's team is also looking into wind power applications. He's even begun investigating the technology's potential for solar power.

Transmission wires using superconductivity could carry much more power than current technology does using less space. Heat loss is also eliminated. Upgrading the grid to such technology could eliminate the need for adding hundreds of new power plants, even in places where power demand is growing.

Enthusiastic supporters of superconducting wires envision the jungle of overhanging power cables seen in most cities replaced entirely with underground networks or superconducting transmission. Existing power plants could expand their output by double or greater. Superconducting wires can also be engineered to instantaneously manage unexpected surges, without needing circuit breakers.

There are even possible applications in energy storage. Engineered just right, superconductivity could make it possible to develop batteries that never lose their charge.

Applications in oil and gas

Wainerdi also sees a market in oil and gas producers, too, one industry not often associated with the potential of superconductivity.

Offshore installations often have huge power needs, he points out, and many use the natural gas they produce on-site to supply their electricity, with diesel generators as backup. Superconducting wires could be used to draw power from the shorelines, or to enhance the output of generators on platforms, allowing companies to produce and sell more gas.

And Wainerdi acknowledged that he is also in talks with companies eager to boost oil production from the Athabasca oil sands of northern Alberta.

The reason, he said, is that companies there are eager to move away from using steam for in-situ oil separation and extraction, known in the industry as steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), to achieving separation by heating the oil sands using electricity.

The distance that UH will be carrying its power to campus along its new superconducting wire is about the same distance that the oil sands operators need to deliver lots of volts underground to make electricity-stimulated in-situ oil extraction from the tar sands commercially viable, Wainerdi said. Current experiments show that producers are losing a lot of power using conventional power delivery, he said, a problem that could be eliminated using Selva's technology.

With deep pockets and a greater willingness than power companies to try new and experimental technologies, oil and gas firms could be the key to supporting mass production of superconducting materials, and facilitating new research and development in the field.

Selva's team is currently seeking $40 million in grant support from the U.S. government to help them expand the small-scale prototype they are experimenting with now into large-scale equipment to fill the 40,000 square feet of additional space they have. Doing so can enable them to manufacture the superconducting wire faster and at greater volumes.

But they will also need customers to market and sell the technology to. Mainstreaming superconductivity may be just a couple of years away, they say.

"My goal is to see how do we keep the technology moving forward, and how do we start commercializing the technology so it creates value?" Wainerdi said.