Environment & Engineering

A measured approach to clean energy

Published Nov 4, 2019

A global effort is underway to unlock a virtually limitless source of pollution-free energy—and Viclink is supporting the Victoria University of Wellington researchers who are playing a pivotal role. 

Researchers at the University’s Robinson Research Institute have developed a tool that measures the electric current capacity of superconducting wires, which is helping Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spin-out company Commonwealth Fusion Systems produce fusion energy that could power the world indefinitely and cleanly. 

The technology involves a new generation of high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets that CFS is using to strengthen the magnetic field that contains the hot-plasma fuel used in conventional tokamaks. These machines use magnetic fields to confine, then heat, hydrogen plasma until the atoms fuse and release energy—paving the way for smaller, commercially-viable fusion power plants.  

“Stronger electromagnets require wires that can carry higher electrical currents over smaller cross sections. The level of current required can only be achieved with superconductors, and not all superconducting wires are equal” says Dr Nick Strickland who manages the wire development programme for the Robinson Research Institute, world leaders in the field of HTS magnets. “A challenge has always been how to characterise the reliability and effectiveness of these wires before building them into magnets.”

Nick says that Robinson researchers have designed and built—in conjunction with former Viclink spin-out company HTS-110 Ltd and in collaboration with CFS—the only commercially-available machine that can characterise superconducting wires under conditions relevant to fusion technology. 

“The original development of this solution came out of our 20-year research partnership with American Superconductor,” says Nick. “But the sudden emergence of companies such as CFS who are pursuing fusion energy as a clean-power source, has meant we started to attract commercial interest from leading HTS wire manufacturers who need to fully characterise their products’ performance as a prerequisite to widespread uptake.”

The Viclink and Robinson team has been looking at supplying a characterisation service as an alternative for customers who don’t wish to purchase the machine itself. “The capital requirements for the full solution doesn’t suit all customers—so we are exploring new commercial models including ‘characterisation as a service’ to ensure we can provide a service that is flexible and competitive across various market segments” says Dr Ashwath Sundaresan, Viclink Senior Commercialisation Manager.  

“Viclink has been invaluable at helping us throughout this process,” says Nick. “They not only secured patents for some of the specific aspects of the technology, they’ve also helped us to work out what to charge for the service, and handled negotiations with interested parties on our behalf. It’s been fantastic to have that sort of expertise freely available and at our fingertips.” 

Ashwath says that it is this type of collaboration between academics and business that will help drive fusion technology out of the lab and into the marketplace. 

“Collaborating with CFS has been such a worthwhile exercise,” says Ashwath. “CFS has the backing of heavyweight investors such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and Richard Branson through Breakthrough Energy Ventures, so it's exciting to be part of such a high profile project. Playing a role in the effort that could deliver an inherently safe, globally scalable, carbon-free, and limitless energy source is pretty mind-blowing.”

For more information, please email Ashwath Sundaresan.