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Tech engineers receive contracts for energy research

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 02 - September 5, 1996

Electrical engineering researchers in the Virginia Power Electronics Center (VPEC) at Virginia Tech have received a three-year, $700,000 contract from Westinghouse Inc. and the Office of Naval Research to develop a system that will convert electrical energy for storage by utilities.

VPEC researchers will develop a prototype power conditioning system for superconducting magnetic-energy storage (SMES), which is a state-of-the-art method for storing electrical energy.

A SMES unit consists of superconducting wire wound into a huge coil, which is cooled with liquid helium to minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit so that the flow of electricity meets no resistance. Direct-current (DC) electricity is fed into the coil, creating a magnetic field that can store the energy indefinitely.

The power conditioning system being developed by the VPEC will convert excess alternating-current (AC) electricity from utility lines to direct-current (DC) electricity that can be stored in SMES units. When the stored energy is needed, the power conditioning system converts the DC electricity into AC for utility line use.

Utilities can store excess energy in SMES units during the night and quickly retrieve energy for use during peak-demand periods of the day. The storage-retrieval process is expected to be more than 95 percent efficient, which will enable utilities to realize significant cost-saving benefits.

SMES units are expected to have wide-spread use. For example, Babcock & Wilcox of Lynchburg is developing a 30 Megawatt SMES for use by utilities in Alaska.

The power conditioning system project is led by VPEC Director Fred C. Lee and Associate Director Dusan Borojevic. The VPEC is one of five technology-development centers established at the university by Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology to support research that contributes to the economic well-being of the commonwealth.