University scientists and engineering from Christchurch hi-tech manufacturer Fabrum Solutions are looking to “transform” New Zealand’s electricity industry and export a new product to the world.
Together they have developed a “super- conductor” electricity transformer they say is environmentally friendly, safe and saves on energy losses.
Electricity generated in the south Island lakes goes through a series of transformers to reduce the power or voltage to a usable current for the household or office appliance. There is a danger of fire or oil spills if transformers overheats or are damaged, says Fabrum.
Fabrum is working in an industry collaboration that includes Victoria University scientists and others, on “high temperature superconducting” (HTS) power transformers. While they are called “high temperature” they were actually run at very low temperatures.
Robinson Research Institute scientists have also contributed to the HTS power transformers which can drastically reduce energy loss compared to conventional transformers.
Fabrum managing director Christopher Boyle says HTS transformers typically are made of special metal coils that needed to be contained in liquid nitrogen cooled space.
Fabrum’s specialty is building cryostats that act like a thermos or chillybin to keep the nitrogen cool while encasing a coil transformer.
“Fabrum Solutions is considered one of the world leaders in the manufacture of cryostats” He says.
Separately, Fabrum is working on a commercialisation project to make Callaghan Innovation designed cryocoolers. These can cool and recycle the liquid nitrogen used in cryostats to make sure it remains at minus 220 degrees.
Together the cooling and thermos-like devices also have other applications. They can be used in a medical imaging systems such as the MRI ( magnetic resonance imaging ) machines.
Tests in an HTS-based transformer developed by the Robinson Institute and tested in Christchurch shows that energy losses are half that of a conventional transformer especially when it was at very low temperatures.
Boyle says traditional transformers, like those seen in green boxes are Christchurch streets, commercial and industrial areas, are cooled by oil. There is a danger a power overload or accident will result in an oil spill or fire.”The issues they have with them is they’re full of oil, so they’re not necessarily environmentally friendly, they have high (power) losses and when you get a fault on them it damages them.”
HTS transformers are more expensive, Boyle says.
When the news HTS transformer is warmed from its very cold operating temperature because of a malfunction or damage it acts like a brake, becoming less efficient in transmitting electricity.
The sale of the efficient transformers could become more commonplace in the next five years, Boyle says.
There has already been interest from the Unites States businesses that are driven by safety. Two examples were those running underground subways where there’s risk of fire in a transformer and those that need to locate large transformers into highly populated residential areas or apartments. “If these things (HTS transformers) fail the most they’ll do is eject a lot of liquid nitrogen into the air.”
Robinson Institute HTS transformers science leader Mike Staines says New Zealand has developed a competitive edge in HTS and other new technologies Scott Technology subsidiary HTS 110 has been another Robinson’s partners.
Fabrum with annual revenues somewhere short of $10 million and a Hornby facility, has grown from a business partnership dating back to 2004, Boyle says.
He and his business partner Hugh Reynolds trained in electrical and mechanical engineering respectively at Canterbury University, and eventually chose Christchurch as the base for manufacturing venture that now has 28 staff.
Canterbury University has been the source of “young fresh graduates”,as the business has expended.
Cryostats manufactured out of components including fibreglass and now mainstream products. They retail for anywhere from $3000 to 3m depending on size, shape and materials used.
Fabrum’s new cryocooler product will be launched for commercial sale at a cryogenic engineering conference in Tucson Arizona on July 1.
Boyle says some of Fabrum’s profits are poured back into research and development to provide the competitive edge needed in the smart manufacturing sector.
Fabrum’s other work included using high water pressure “of up to 70,000 psi water pressure” to accurately cut items such as metal, fibreglass, stone and benchtops in industrial applications.