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MRI Technology May Help Generate Electricity

September 1, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging
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What will MRI machines and electricity-generating wind turbines have in common?

Superconducting magnets.

At least they will if a new project by GE Global Research works out. (GE Global Research is the technology development arm of General Electric.) In a Tuesday news release, Keith Longtin, wind technology leader for GE Global Research, said:

For MRI systems, we’re applying superconducting magnets to make lower-cost systems with higher image quality. For wind turbines, we want to apply them to generate more wind power at a lower cost of electricity. The applications are different, but the basic technology is the same.

Most wind turbines connect the rotating blades to a generator by using a gearbox. As turbines get bigger, weight and maintenance issues make gearboxes problematic. Direct-drive turbines, which use permanent magnets and eliminate gears, are better. But they’re still heavy, and they use increasingly scarce and expensive rare earth metals.

If direct-drive turbines could use superconducting magnets, they’d be lighter and more efficient and wouldn’t need rare earth elements.

Of course, there are technical hurdles, which the U.S. Department of Energy is giving GE Global Research $3 million over two years to overcome. In order to be superconducting, magnets have to be supercooled. At least at present, that requires the use of liquid helium for cooling. Helium is also becoming scarce.

GE will have to figure out not only how to keep the magnet chilled but also how to keep it safe. Ruben Fair, GE’s “principal investigator” on this project, discussed some of the challenges in a GE Global Research blog:

As you might imagine, putting a superconducting generator operating at 4.2K (-269°C or -452°F) on top of a turbine tower in the middle of some ocean is no mean feat, and just the thought of it tends to give wind farm operators the shudders!

On the Kelvin scale, 4.2 degrees is about as close to absolute zero as Congress’s approval ratings.

Interestingly, Fair seems to be considering the new technology only for offshore uses, at least at first. That’s probably a good idea. An accident at sea would most likely threaten only a few fish.

GE is hoping to develop a turbine that generates up to 15 megawatts, enough to power about 4,500 average households for one year—or about 155 MRI machines.

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