Super-conductor turbines could slash Australian wind energy costs

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turbineNew super-conductor turbines developed by Australian researchers could result in a significant impovement on current turbines, and enable the development of off-shore wind turbines along Australia’s coast within 5 years.

A superconductor is a material that can conduct electricity or transport electrons from one atom to another with no resistance. This means no heat, sound or any other form of energy would be released from the material when it has reached “critical temperature”, or the temperature at which the material becomes superconductive.

The new turbines, developed by a team at the Institute for Superconducting and Electronic Materials at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, will weigh 40 per cent less than current turbines just by taking away the gear box which sits in current models. The removal of the complex, heavy, and costly gear box also means the removal of a lot of maintenance.

“In our design there is no gear box, which right away reduces the size and weight by 40 percent,” said lead researcher and materials scientist Shahriar Hossain talking to “We are developing a magnesium diboride superconducting coil to replace the gear box. This will capture the wind energy and convert it into electricity without any power loss, and will reduce manufacturing and maintenance costs by two thirds.”

Another major benefit is the cost of building the turbine will be drastically reduced. Currently it costs roughly $15 million for each turbine to build, with the estimated cost for the new super-conductor turbines to cost roughly $3-5 million per turbine.

“Australia desperately needs sustainable energy sources. Wind is cheap, clean and we can get it on rainy and sunny days,” he said. “And considering Australia has more than 35,000 km of coastline, there is ample room for offshore wind farms. With industry support, we could install superconducting offshore wind turbines off the coast of Australia in five years, no problem.”

Here’s Hossain talking about their research:




  • Alan Benn

    A gearbox is most complicated part ? More complicated than the refrigerant system that will presumably be needed for the superconductor ?
    Where’s more detail on the claimed 4000% increase in efficiency in the email advertising this ? I presume that’s a typo ?

    • Peter Campbell

      I suspect this means a 40-fold reduction in just those losses that are due to the mechanical gearing system and electrical resistance of non-superconducting copper coils. Depending on how large those particular losses are in the overall scheme of things it may or may not be all that important.

      • patb2009

        pretty small.

        If a 5 MW Wind turbine is losing 2X it’s power in mechanical drive that’s 5 MW of heat coming out of the gearbox. Damned huge heat flux

        • Peter Campbell

          I do wonder just how useful this would be given the complexity of maintaining very low temperatures. I think electric motors/generators are already around 90% efficient so they are not going to get very much better.

  • Petra Liverani

    It does seem a little too good to be true. I wonder why this development seems to apply only to offshore but not onshore turbines.

  • Ronald Brakels

    All well and good but gear boxless wind turbines are pretty much the norm for new windfarms in Australia now, so the advantages of getting rid of gear boxes them might be a bit overstated. But I presume there is still scope for reducing weight compared to a direct drive turbines and all else equal every kilogram shaved off directly translates into cost savings. So hopefully this will be very useful if it works. Have to admit though, I don’t see why we need off shore wind in Australia when we have so many excellent sites on land and less weight translates into less cost where ever they go. Perhaps in the future it will be cheaper to just tow in an enormous wind turbine from overseas and park it off shore, but we’re a long way from that at the moment.

    • WR

      Current gearless turbines are apparently heavier than the geared variety. This is because the generator (magnets and coil) needs to be much larger in a gearless turbine than in a geared device to produce equivalent amounts of power from the much lower rotational speed. There are apparently also material supply concerns with respect to the rare earth elements that are used to make the permanent magnets. The use of superconducting materials is aimed at addressing those problems.

  • Paul

    Actually wind turbines are ‘powered’ by wind, not magnets – regardless of how super conductive they are; and if they get 1000 times more efficient then they will produce hundreds of times more power than the wind that passes through them actually holds, which is impossible.

    • patb2009

      A Good Permanent ElectroMagnetic Motor system using Rare Earth Elements is some 97% efficient. Seems like all you have left is the gain of 3%. Maybe a
      smaller package by getting rid of the transmission, but I don’t see it.

      Strikes me as kind of BS.

  • Warwick

    Where’s the justification in the email for the claim of “New superconductor-powered wind turbines which are 1000 times more efficient than current models could hit Australian shores within five years.”? No mean feat!!! Betz law limits the energy available to 59% of the energy in the wind and up to 80-90% of that is captured by modern horizontal axis turbines, so where is the 1000X improvement coming from? Does that perhaps actually mean that the electrical losses are 1/1000 of what they were (much more believable)? Where does the $15m/turbine cost come from?…Hepburn cost $13m for 2 and it was one of the more expensive projects.

    Interesting work nonetheless but perhaps getting a tad carried away in enthusiasm.

  • WR

    Check the Wollongong University home page for a clearer version of this article that answers some of the questions asked below.

  • Eclectic Eel

    From my understanding, high temperature superconductors can work at above the temperature of liquid nitrogen. What cryogenic technology exists to keep the electromagnets and wiring of isolated turbines working reliably in liquid nitrogen? I’d love to think this was an easily solved engineering problem.

    • patb2009

      Superconducting motors have been the holy grail of the Generation business,
      having a good High Temp Superconductor, and a good package has some efficiency gains, but, it’s not mainstream

  • Bob Fearn

    There are already large wind turbines with no gearboxes.

  • Peter Thomson

    Dr. Hossain really doesn’t explain on the UoW web site how superconducting coils do away with the gearbox, and as said below, gearboxless wind turbines already exist, so it’s not clear how the weight is being saved. Possibly the superconducting coil is lighter than the equivalent copper coil – but then it needs a cryogenic cooling system which adds weight.
    MgB2 doesn’t need liquid helium cooing, but it does need to be kept cooled below 39K for superconductivity. The cryocooler to do this takes significant power to run. I would be interested to see how the cooling energy requirement compares with the losses in an uncooled copper coil. Special handling may be necessary too, as MgB2 is a rocket fuel – could lead to some truly spectacular turbine failures!.
    But good luck to them – if they can succeed in making it work then my hat is off to them.

  • Alan Baird

    Regardless of the outcome, IF the turbines ARE 1000 times as efficient, one thing you CAN guarantee is that Joe will be 1000 times as offended ‘cos they’ll do tremendous damage to the output of coal which is wholesome and good enough to eat. And breathe when it’s burned.

  • Mark Goldes

    Ultraconductors are polymer equivalents of room temperature superconductors. See

    However, as comments below indicate superconductors cannot provide the gain claimed in this article.

    They may prove capable of storing the energy as an alternative to batteries in the future.

    Four Small Business Innovation Research contracts have been completed on these materials. All four Final Reports have been cleared for public release and are available free upon request.

    Development has been interrupted for a decade by lack of capital. That has changed. Ultraconductors are moving toward the market once again.

    • The great high points of Mark Goldes’ career in fraudcraft were the obtaining of four Small Business Innovative Research contracts with the Unites States Air Force, which cost taxpayers roughly a half million dollars. In the fourteen years since the conclusion of the fourth project, Goldes’ fraudulent companies and so-called “Aesop Institute” never made any further progress in this area, at all – but that has not stopped Goldes from pretending that Magnetic Power Inc, or Chava Energy LLC, or “Aesop Institute” will be making Revolutionary Breakthroughs involving “Ultraconductors” as soon as you give them your money. In fact, MPI’s own reports on the Ultraconductor contract projects consist of a succession of rosy and wonderful claims and predictions which went entirely unfulfilled by following projects, and remain unfulfilled today.

      It is important to understand that the “Ulraconductor” film was only claimed to be “ultraconductive” to current across the thin dimension of the film – and not along the extensive dimensions. MPI asserted that they would develop a way to make the thin “ultraconductive” film thicker – and never did so. MPI asserted that they would develop a way to make “ultraconductive” wire – and never did so. MPI asserted that their enrichment method would become the key to making thicker film and wire – but the method never did so. MPI asserted that their “Ultraconductor” film would surely prove wonderfully useful for making thermoelectric devices – but once again, the rosy claims went unfulfilled. MPI asserted that they would obtain “ultraconductivity” along the plane of the film, instead of merely across the thin dimension, by repositioning the supposedly “ultraconductive” channels. They never did so.

      The USAF never “validated” Goldes’ so-called “Ultraconductors” at all, and the USAF never gave Goldes any procurement contract for any “Ultraconductors” at all. The four research grants that Goldes obtained from the USAF were a waste of taxpayer money which never resulted in the development of anything of any value. Goldes’ degree of honesty in the matter of the “Ultraconductor” grants is just the same as his degree of honesty regarding all of his other make-believe “breakthroughs.” It is zero. Zero honesty. Zero “breakthroughs.” Zero fulfilment of his endless empty claims – as usual.

  • Miles Harding

    I would be surprised if the current turbines aren’t better than 95 percent efficient. As for the cost reduction, most of the turbine is a large tower and long blades.

  • Simon Arnold

    Few points on HTS wind generators.

    As someone has noted direct drive generators are not novel for wind turbines. Getting rid of the gearbox reduces the parts count and hence reliability but the size of coils required increases with slower speeds. This is mitigated by using permanent magnets.

    HTS can replace the PMs and give much higher power density and lower weight, but at the price of introducing cryogenics into the system and an expensive wire (2-3 X Cu on price-performance basis).

    However HTS’s use in transmission cables is expected to drive up the volumes produced and hence the cost down to match Cu over the next few years. Also reliable industrial cryogenics at the scale required to cool to ~30K for HTS are not really a problem (the lower temp than liquid Nitrogen is required to improve the wire’s performance).

    Much less work has been done on MgB2 (the conductor being used by Wollongong and not generally classed as a HTS). There are a number of design studies that show it would need to be operating at 15-20K (and the cost of cooling isn’t linear with temp by any means), and because the field strength is lower than that possible with HTS it would need more wire (and perhaps iron) . However the cost of the conductor (but not the whole rotor subsystem including cryogenics) would be 10X lower than HTS.

    The wind generator is attractive as an application of HTS because it is likely to be enabling of larger machines above 10-15MW, lowering total cost of installation (there are efficiency gains and potentially they can be engineered to interact in a more friendly way with the grid but these alone won’t make the case). ABB, Acciona, Converteam/GE Power Conversion, Doosan HE, Envision Energy, Posco, & Teco-Westinghouse are all known to have or to have had development activities. When it comes to rotating machines this is currently the most popular target for commercial development activity. It has the advantage that HTS is likely to be economic at lower ratings making it a good early market, although the interest might also reflect government funding preferences.

    I’m not sure what stage Wollongong is at, or whether they have commercial partners. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of any larger scale industrial prototyping in the clip I looked at, and large machines take a while and a number of iterations to get to market (as someone has already noted).

  • Tom

    Total bullshit. Gearbox is less than 10% of total installation costs, generator is about 5%. Also, $15 million for a turbine?! Only offshore buddy. AMSC are way ahead of this guy, they already have a commercial superconducting cable and plans for a large scale turbine. We’ll see if the additional cost for exotic materials and a cooling system are worth it.