Local firm gets energy grant

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority on Monday announced $6 million in grant

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority on Monday announced $6 million in grant funding to further energy efficiency projects in throughout New York, $500,000 of which went to Schenectady-based superconducting wire company SuperPower Inc.

“This project is one that we have been working on with the [U.S. Dept. of Energy] for a couple of years and this is a new phase of the project that NYSERDA is providing some funding for,” SuperPower Marketing Manager Traute Lehner said.

The NYSERDA funding will combine with $5 million from the U.S. energy department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and private funding from SuperPower, Sumitomo Electric Industries, Linde Gas, American Electric Power and the Electric Power Research Institute. It will pay for an $11.5 million effort to develop, install and test a prototype superconducting “fault-current limiter,” a replacement technology for power grid circuit breakers.

Chuck Weber, SuperPower’s manager for the project, said a fault-current limiter would allow an electricity grid to better absorb power surges caused by lighting or downed wires.

“A superconductor transmits electricity with no resistance when it’s in a superconducting state. If the temperature goes too high, the amount of current you put through it goes too high, or the magnetic field goes too high it returns to a resistive state. So what we do with the [fault-current limiter] is we design it and put it into the grid so that during normal operation it’s in the superconducting state and virtually invisible to the grid,” Weber said. “There are very large currents that flow through the system when a fault happens, so the device is designed so that when those very large currents flow through it the device goes back into its resistive state, that resistance basically puts the breaks on the current.”

Weber said if the fault-current limiters are successful it could allow more electricity to be channeled through a power grid safely and more efficiently. He said the first units will be strategically inserted into parts of American Electric Power’s transmission grid toward the end of 2009.

SuperPower, a subsidiary of Royal Philips Electronics, has been working to develop second-generation high temperature superconducting wires made from a combination of nickel and nanotech.

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.

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