Environment & Engineering

On track to success

Published Jul 5, 2018

A joint project involving Victoria University research—which is set to revolutionise high-speed train travel and have a massive impact on climate change— was recognised last night at the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards 2018

The project was a finalist in the MinterEllisonRuddWatts Research & Business Partnership Award in recognition of the significant commercial value it will create for New Zealand as a result of the close partnership formed between Victoria University’s Robinson Research Institute, two top Chinese universities, three major listed Chinese companies, and New Zealand company Fabrum Solutions. 

Working alongside key partner, Beijing Jiaotong University, Viclink helped the Robinson team to secure a key role in this major contract with the Chinese Government to design, develop and build a traction transformer using High Temperature Superconducting technology (HTS) for higher-powered high-speed rail. The project is part of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, and a key part of the country’s strategy to improve linkages across Asia and Europe while reducing air travel and the resulting carbon emissions. 

“China is heavily invested in renewable energy,” explains Dr Rod Badcock, Robinson’s deputy director and principal engineer, “so they want to encourage people to swap planes for electric trains. However, they faced a large technical problem: they needed to increase power to the trains in order to make them go faster and pull more carriages, but they couldn’t use larger or heavier transformers because there’s a trade-off between weight and speed.”   

Dr Badcock says Robinson had the solution with their cutting-edge HTS technology. “It’s enabled us to build a smaller and lighter traction transformer that will give the extra power needed (another 2 megawatts) to propel longer trains at speeds in excess of 400 km per hour across Asia and into Europe—making train travel a viable alternative to flying.” 

The $13m project already has enormous prestige in China: it is the largest international co-operation project and the only New Zealand project to be awarded in 2017 by MOST (the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology). 

“We think it reflects the global demand for the specialist skills and niche market that we have created in New Zealand around HTS technology,” says Dr Badcock. “It’s never going to be viable for us to make high speed trains, but what we can do is make key technology for those trains here instead, and retain the intellectual property on the components that form the traction transformers.” 

His colleague, Ben Parkinson, senior engineer, agrees. “Our focus has always been on applications of the technology that can be manufactured in New Zealand, but exported globally. We have a saying: ‘If you can put your arms around it, we can ship it!’” 

The project is a pilot but Dr Badcock says that if the China Railways Construction Corporation is happy with the prototype transformer, they will put it into production. And with over 4,000 km of high speed rail tracks being laid each year in China, that means huge potential for job creation and economic growth in New Zealand. 

“Being nominated for this award is a huge boost for the Kiwi researchers and partner companies involved in this project,” says Dr Badcock, who has been appointed as a Professor at Beijing Jiaotong University under the ‘foreign expert’ scheme by the Chinese Government.

“It recognises the global technical challenges that we are solving here, and the growth opportunities we are creating for the New Zealand companies we partner with—such as Fabrum Solutions, who manufacture the cooling and containment systems required for the HTS transformers to operate. We are excited to see what the future holds.” 

Read about Victoria’s second nomination in the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards for 2018.