Magnetic energy power generation systems and devices have primarily remained in research labs as opposed to commercial production with the exception of hard disk drives (HDD) for computers. However, HDDs are in the process of being replaced by solid state disk drives using Flash memory, which has several competitive advantages in terms of performance. Magnetic random access memory (MRAM) for electronic devices has offered a plethora of universities and research centers, primarily in East Asia and Germany, an interesting topic for exploration, but only one commercial product, by a single company, exists on the market. In addition, magnetic energy generation systems for alternative energy applications are not viable at this time and much of the information from companies on the internet is not worth reading. This current status of the field was reconfirmed at the 56th Annual Conference on Magnetism and Magnetic Materials held in Scottsdale, Arizona this week.
However, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE); namely its Wind and Water Power program, is hoping to generate a thrust for magnetic systems for clean energy-related applications in recent funding initiatives this year and ultimately lower the cost of domestic offshore wind energy. Over the summer, it granted nearly $7.5 million to be allocated over the next two years to advance next-generation designs for wind turbine drivetrains that incorporate permanent magnets. Drivetrains, which include a turbine’s gearbox and generator, produce electricity from the rotation of the blades. The six funded projects will focus on reducing the cost of wind energy by increasing component reliability or redesigning drivetrains to streamline the overall design.
In specific, direct-drive generators can displace the gearbox, which reduces weight significantly, while eliminating moving parts and reducing maintenance costs. Other projects receiving funding are focused on increasing the amount of energy drivetrains can generate or aiding the development of drivetrain designs that minimize the use of costly rare earth materials, which has been an issue for many commercial applications involving magnets. Each project was selected to receive up to $700,000 to conduct technology cost and feasibility assessments during the first phase of development. Thereafter, several of the projects will be selected for award negotiations of up to an additional $2 million. Projects selected for Phase II awards will use the funding to conduct performance tests of the specific drivetrain components.
Boulder (Colorado) Wind Power received one of the grants and will test an innovative permanent magnet-based direct-drive generator to validate performance and reliability of a large utility-scale turbine. Design requirements and optimization will also be published for turbines up to 10 megawatts and for turbines deployed in offshore applications. The proposed generator design is expected to operate at higher efficiencies than other permanent magnet generators.
GE Global Research of Niskayuna, New York was one of the six awardees and is in the process of designing component testing for a 10 megawatt direct-drive generator that weight 50 tons by adapting the superconducting electromagnets used in magnetic resonance imaging. An electromagnet creates a magnetic field when an electric current is applied to it, unlike a permanent magnet. The electromagnet will incorporate coils of superconducting wire, in order to operate without electrical resistance, making it more efficient; however it has to be cooled to well below room temperature to acheive superconducting behavior. GE’s generator approach would eliminate the need for rare-earth magnetic materials.
Magnetism is a highly physics-oriented subject matter and an outstanding research proving ground full of quantum mechanical effects and principles. Unfortunately, many camps have gotten lost in the elegant academic side of the field, losing focus on numerous commercial energy and electronic device applications to really elevate the field beyond niche products. The U.S. DOE is aiming to attract magnetic components to improve future wind power systems to help the country keep up with foreign competition. Proposals of this sort are undergoing much deeper scrutiny now in the wake of the Solyndra solar stimulus scandal rocking the clean energy industry.
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