Superconductors set to make wind turbines cheaper and more efficient

Wind power

Researchers from the University of Woollongong are developing technologies for the next generation of offshore wind turbines that are one-third the price and 1000-times more efficient. The turbines could be installed off the coast of Australia as soon as 2020.

Materials scientist Dr Shahriar Hossain, from the Institute for Superconducting and Electronic Materials at the University of Woollongong (UOW), said current conventional offshore wind turbines cost $15 million each to build, are extremely heavy and difficult to transport, and require a lot of maintenance.

“In our design there is no gearbox, which right away reduces the size and weight by 40 per cent,” Dr Hossain said.

“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.”

Dr Hossain is developing a magnesium diboride superconducting coil, made from magnesium and boron, which is cheap and easy to manufacture.

Up to 200km of coil is needed to generate electricity in wind turbines and, with current technologies, that would cost between $3-5 million to manufacture. The same length of magnesium diboride superconducting coil costs $180,000, a figure that could reduce dramatically as magnesium diboride becomes less expensive.

By 2015, Dr Hossain’s US industry partner, Hyper Tech Research, predicts magnesium diboride coil will cost as little as $1 per metre to manufacture.

In the UK, more than $2.5 billion has been invested into offshore wind farms, which provide around 8 terawatt-hours of electricity annually – the equivalent to the electricity consumption of around
two million homes.

If Australia wants to achieve its target of an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, it needs to start investing in renewable energy sources, like wind, according to Dr Hossain.

“Australia desperately needs sustainable energy sources. Wind is cheap, clean and we can get it on rainy and sunny days. And, considering Australia has more than 35,000km of coastline, there is ample room for offshore wind farms,” he said.

“With industry support, we could install superconducting offshore wind turbines off the coast of Australia in five years, no problem.”