‘Switch’ set, superconductivity startup soars

Material gains: Working with high-temp ceramics, exfoliated filaments and other space-age materials, NextSwitch is looking to supercharge superconductivity.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Resistance, it turns out, is not futile – but in this power struggle, a Stony Brook startup may have the technological advantage.

In the world of electricity transmission, resistance – opposition to an electric current’s flow, the opposite of electrical conductance – is the whole bowl of wax. Tip the scales from conductance to resistance, and it’s going to be a dark night on Main Street.

The challenge is especially steep for the clean-generation set. Solar and wind innovations abound, but transmitting the generated juice without losing the lion’s share is a whole other technological ballgame.

Stony Brook-based NextSwitch is on it, working up new applications in the increasingly important world of high-temperature superconductivity, a potential key to global energy sustainability.

Founded in 2015 by Brookhaven Technology Group President Paul Farrell and Slowa Solovyov, BTG’s vice president and chief scientist, NextSwitch leverages several technologies – including a superconductor super-switch Solovyov developed at Brookhaven National Laboratory – to build indispensable tools for high-temp energy transmissions.

Among their creations: a superconducting device that can transmit large amounts of electrical energy with zero loss for direct-current applications (electrons flowing in one direction).

The cable guys: Superconducting cables could unlock the potential of sustainable electricity generation.

Working at Stony Brook University’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, the NextSwitch team is currently retooling the tech – which incorporates superconducting ceramics, exfoliated filaments and other advanced materials – to address what Solovyov called an “intrinsic loss” in alternating-current transmissions (where electrons change directions).

For sustainability purposes, reducing that AC-transmission loss would be a true game-changer: Alternating current is the best way to transmit electricity over long distances, making superconductivity a true golden egg for wind and solar farms.

Meanwhile, NextSwitch’s proprietary ExoCable technology – which operates at really high temperatures, dramatically reduces “magnetization loss” and boasts a host of other superconducting powers – may have further uses in a completely different energy vertical: fusion.

According to Solovyov, the company’s superconducting ceramics are “the only material that lets you generate ultra-high magnetic fields, which you need to contain fusion plasma” – putting fusion reactors squarely on BTG’s radar.

Slowa Solovyov: Cash in fusion.

“Right now, it’s important, with people having a second look at fusion,” Solovyov added. “There’s quite a bit of private funding for fusion-reaction companies that are looking to develop compact, inexpensive fusion reactors.”

In addition to conducting, superbly, NextSwitch’s machinations include a “switching technology” that can cut an electrical current in just 5 milliseconds – an emergency-stop button, or “fault-current limiter,” designed by Solovyov and Qiang Li, leader of the Advanced Energy Materials Group in BNL’s Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Sciences Division.

The limiter – which can also be programmed to conduct different currents at different times, maximizing energy efficiency – has proven itself in a small-scale prototype capable of zapping along about 1,000 amperes (enough to power 1,250 or so 100-watt bulbs). The mission now, Solovyov said, is to scale it up.

With so much cutting-edge R&D in play, collaboration is key. In addition to BNL, NextSwitch – a client of SBU’s Clean Energy Business Incubation Program – counts Massachusetts-based energy-tech company American Superconductor, a global leader in clean-gen and sustainability solutions, among its professional partners.

In the race for sustainability supremacy, such collaborations cannot be overvalued – and neither can NextSwitch’s access to the AERTC’s next-level laboratories, or the many innovators in CEBIP’s orbit, according to Solovyov.

“It’s mostly the equipment they let you use, all the analytical instrumentations that you can access readily,” he said. “And you can interact with all of these other businesses, which is helpful also.”

With its ceramic superconductors shaping up and its efficient transmitter/emergency brake system ready to supersize, NextSwitch is setting some ambitious fundraising targets, leading directly to a manufacturing plan.

“We have a couple of grants from the (U.S.) Department of Energy,” Solovyov said. “But we are looking for private funding … to raise about $5 million to scale it up to distribution levels.

“And when we do, we’ll be looking for a manufacturing partner.”

 


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