What Can You Do with a Superconductor? A Lot! [PODCAST]

What is a superconductor? One definition says, “a material that can conduct electricity or transport electrons from one atom to another with no resistance.”

“At the base physics level, what a superconductor does is it moves a lot more power per unit volume or per unit weight, so you have a very high energy-dense material that can move lots of power,” Daniel McGahn, CEO of American Superconductor (AMSC), explained as a guest on The POWER Podcast. “So, from a very simple standpoint, we can move transmission-level power at distribution voltage simply with the energy density.”

AMSC is a global energy solutions provider serving both the power grid and wind industries. “Everything we do revolves around resiliency—either of the grid, infrastructure, or of Navy ships,” McGahn said.

“We do a lot of grid interconnection of wind to the grid. We do voltage support within the grid. We do voltage support for large industrial consumers of power, things like mills, mines, and semiconductor fabs—all large instantaneous users of power. We have a solution for them to be able to protect the grid from their operations,” he said.

The focus of AMSC’s grid business is really on “trying to move power with a purpose,” McGahn explained. What that means is AMSC technology can interconnect substations on the distribution side to allow them to work as one. This allows a very small conduit to be used under city streets in the urban core.

“So, it’s not really a power cable, it’s more like an extension cord or a long bus bar that connect two physical assets that exist,” McGahn said. “When we look at multi-point connections throughout the city, we have the potential to double if not quadruple the overall resiliency of that urban system.”

AMSC has done work with Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago. “What we see are very similar vanes of need. The first one is we need to bring more infrastructure into the urban core. We don’t have access to land. It can be quite expensive to do it. And our idea is, ‘Why don’t we untrap and unleash the trapped capacity that already exists within the system and have it work more like a multi-point network?’ ” said McGahn.

“Most of the things we do on the grid really revolve around hardening, bringing more resiliency, bringing more leverage of existing capacity. And we’re trying to do that in a way where we don’t extend the cyber footprint of the system,” he said.

AMSC’s technology is also being used on U.S. warships to counter minefield threats. Many mines are activated by sensing a change in magnetism, which can be caused by a ship passing through the water near them. World War II technology utilized copper degaussing coils to reduce magnetic signatures, but a lot has changed since that time.

McGahn said ships now go a lot faster. Furthermore, threats today tend to be concentrated in shallower water and sensors have become more sophisticated. The Navy realized new solutions were warranted.

“They’ve invested around $30 million of development money. We’ve done full qualification. We’ve done tens of thousands of hours at sea on multiple different ship platforms and we just recently—at the end of last year—converted that into a full order and instruction to deliver a complete system for the first ship. And the second ship, we announced earlier this calendar year,” McGahn said.

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Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).