The Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced Wednesday that SuperPower, a Schenectady-based superconducting wire manufacturer, has signed a license agreement to use technology patents co-developed with SuperPower but owned by the government to lower the cost of producing the wire.
“The federal government has recognized the potential of the high-temperature superconducting technology in solving the nation’s energy challenges,” said Dominic Lee, the ORNL superconductivity project manager.
According to federal officials, the licensing agreement is part of Department of Energy’s effort to develop and ultimately transfer energy-related technologies from DOE national laboratories into the private sector. In June, DOE announced a $51.8 million commitment for cost-shared projects aimed at advancing the development of superconducting wires and Schenectady-based SuperPower was among the companies selected by DOE to receive funding.
“From our point of view, SuperPower was doing a great job in developing second-generation superconducting wires, but the buffer layer they had been looking at [prior to licensing ORNL’s technology] was not optimum,” Lee said.
Although superconductivity was discovered in 1911, technological barriers have prevented the technology, which uses extremely low temperatures to allow electrons to pass freely through wires, from being commercialized. At first, wires were cooled with expensive liquid helium to bring temperatures down to -450 Fahrenheit. Breakthroughs allowed cheaper liquid nitrogen to cool silver into a superconductive state at -320 Fahrenheit, but again the cost of silver limited those wires, known as high-temperature wires because they are 130 degrees warmer.
Now SuperPower makes its wires with a combination of nickel and a substance made with nanotechnology. SuperPower Marketing Manager Traute Lehner said the ORNL-patented intellectual property simplifies the buffer layers and has enabled much faster wire production.
“This will hopefully allow us to reduce the cost of the wire. Reducing the cost is extremely important for us. We have to get to the point where the price of our product is comparable to the price of copper,” Lehner said.
Lee said SuperPower has also negotiated the right to package the new license agreement with other superconducting technologies DOE might patent in the future. Lee said superconducting wires have the potential to increase the efficiency of energy transmission lines by about 5 percent.
Since ORLN is an arm of the U.S. Dept. of Energy, the licensing agreement promises royalties paid by SuperPower to repay federal taxpayers for the government’s investment in the technology, Lehner said.
Lee said the superconducting wires produced by SuperPower can transmit three to five times as much electricity as conventional wires within cables of the same size. He said the technology may help the environment by creating efficiencies in transmission as well as end use products and thus reduce electricity demands. Lee said superconducting cables have the potential to free up valuable “duct space” by doing the work of multiple conventional power lines but only taking up about a fifth of their footprint. In cable-congested urban areas, this may allow other types of cables like fiber optics to be moved in.
Another benefit of the wires may be derived from using liquid nitrogen as a coolant for superconducting wires within large motors instead of oil, Lee said.
“So you have no oil to leak, to effect the environment. Liquid nitrogen leaks [harmlessly] into the atmosphere as nitrogen gas,” Lee said.
SuperPower is a subsidiary of Royal Philips Electronics based in the Netherlands and employs about 64 people at its 450 Duane Ave. plant.
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