December 01, 2011

New materials could be transformative

Citing historical examples, U.S. secretary of energy Steven Chu argues that the nation can still regain its manufacturing leadership.

Americans should not regret that solar panels were invented here but are now mostly made in China. “They’re Henry Fording us,” he said of the Chinese innovations that lowered the cost of solar-panel production. But in that fast-developing field, there are still many opportunities to regain the lead, he suggested.

The potential for innovation that could revitalize American manufacturing extends across many sectors, Chu said. For example, improved steel alloys can allow car bodies to be just as strong but much lighter. This means that the engine and drive train can be smaller and lighter, since they don’t have to move as much weight, which in turn lowers the overall weight even more. In total, he said, cars could become 25 to 30 percent lighter, with essentially no sacrifice in size or performance. Similarly, new ways of processing composite materials for car bodies at much lower cost could achieve even greater improvements.

Other countries are working on better materials as well

Stronger steel and aluminum alloys and redesigning car parts to reduce weight is likely to have the most impact in reducing vehicle weight. 10% reduction in vehicle weight provides a 6-7% boost in fuel efficiency.

Mazda Motor Corporation, in collaboration with Sumitomo Metal Industries, Ltd. and Aisin Takaoka Co., Ltd., became the first automaker to successfully develop vehicle components using 1,800 MPa ultra-high tensile steel. The super-strength steel will debut in the new Mazda CX-5 crossover SUV that will commence its global launch in early 2012.

Mazda’s new production technology uses 1,800 MPa ultra-high tensile steel to fabricate bumper beams, which fit inside the front and rear bumpers and mitigate damage in the event of a collision. The bumper bars are 20% stronger and 4.8 kilograms lighter than previous versions and are a key part of Mazda’s next-generation, lightweight and highly rigid vehicle architecture.

Toray Industries, which got its start making rayon and is now the largest producer of carbon fiber. Teijin, another company that began in textiles, also presented a concept car based on carbon fiber in March this year. The two companies are beginning a major push to market carbon fiber to car companies as a serious substitute for the heavier steel-based designs of today. Even with a 200-kilogram battery, this car weighs 846 kilograms which is about half the weight of a comparable regular car.

Another area where major improvements could be made, Chu said, is in the energy efficiency of buildings. He cited a new Obama administration initiative calling for a 20 percent reduction in energy use by commercial and academic buildings. “Most of the technology to improve the efficiency of buildings doesn’t cost any more,” and where there is an added cost, he said, it could be recouped in less than 10 years through energy savings.

Chu offered several other examples of specific technologies that could lead to major reductions in energy use. For example, operating electrical transmission lines at a higher frequency than the now-standard 60 hertz could allow for drastic reductions in the size and cost of transformers and power circuits, but doing so would require advances in power-conversion technology.

“There’s a theme here,” he pointed out: Engineering a few new materials or systems could make a big difference in meeting our energy challenges.

China is going for Ultra high voltage power transmission

Investment in China’s power grid, which stalled last year, will resume with Rmb2.55 trillion (US$364 billion) budgeted for spending up to 2015.

The State Grid Corporation of China has pushed through its plan to develop untried ultra-high voltage alternating current systems as well as more stable direct current lines and smart grid networks.

A technical debate has been resolved in favor of the plan by the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) to build ultra-high voltage alternating current (UHV AC) transmission lines to link energy-generating bases in the west of China with heavy power users in the east of the country. The SGCC believes that this system will transfer electricity over long distances with less wastage than other systems and will offer more flexibility in serving different regions. Its approach was challenged by experts outside the company on grounds of cost effectiveness and technical feasibility; they noted that a UHV AC network has not been successfully operated anywhere else in the world and pointed to the danger of unstable power supply.

But the dispute has subsided since tests over the past two years have led to central government approval of the trial UHV AC line. So the grid operator, which controls 80 per cent of China’s transmission and distribution infrastructure, is ready to push ahead aggressively with its plan to build UHV transmission lines as the trunk connection stretching across the country. SGCC General Manager Liu Zhenya told the company’s work conference on 6 January 2011 that “UHV development is of first and foremost priority in the 12th Five-Year Plan (FYP) period”. He announced that more than Rmb500 billion (US$76 billion) would be invested from 2011 to 2015 in building seven UHV AC transmission lines and nine less expensive (but also less flexible) lines using the more stable back-to-back direct current (DC) technology. This is a massive increase from the Rmb20 billion (US$3 billion) spent in total on UHV lines between 2006 and 2010.

In addition, the investment plan for the new FYP includes building a smart grid, which will utilize digital technology for two-way communications between power suppliers and consumers, and upgrading rural grids. Both areas have support at the highest policymaking level. We expect average annual spending to be about Rmb200 billion (US$30 billion) on the smart grid and Rmb100 billion (US$15 billion) on rural grids.

The 500kV grid network currently in place is insufficient to meet the demand for high-capacity and long-distance power transmission. Moreover, lack of access to grid infrastructure in remote areas is inhibiting wind power from contributing to China’s energy mix. At present more than half the electricity generated by wind farms in northwestern China goes to waste due to problems with grid connections.

The SGCC’s strategy is to link together the North China Grid, Central China Grid and East China Grid as power recipients with the overlay of a UHV AC network to strengthen regional connectivity. These then will be connected individually with the large bases for coal production, wind power, nuclear power and hydropower through UHV AC or DC lines depending on the distances involved (see map below). As explained in earlier reports, UHV technologies, transmitting electricity at 1000 kV AC voltages and 800 kV DC voltages, could increase transmission capacity and distance by two to five times compared with 500 kV lines, while massively reducing electricity loss and the overall land surface occupied. This system design is aimed at optimizing energy resource allocation and redistributing electricity supply to power-deficient regions with more flexibility.

The first and only 1000 kV AC line built so far, from southeastern Shanxi province across Henan province to Jingmen city in Hubei province, transported 11.786 billion kWh of electricity in 2010. A total of 7.235 billion kWh of thermal power generated in Shanxi province was sent to the Central China Grid during the dry season, equivalent to transporting 3.6 million tonnes of coal; and 4.55 billion kWh of hydropower was carried over to North China Grid during the flood season, saving 2.3 million tonnes of coal. The 800kV DC demonstration line from Xiangjiaba (in Sichuan province) to Shanghai, which entered commercial operation in July 2010, completed transmission of 6.4 billion kWh of hydropower by the end of 2010, saving 2.6 million tonnes of coal.

Unlike airliners and high-speed railways, there is no readily available foreign experience to borrow when building a UHV AC network. To advance with indigenous technology, the SGCC has teamed industry leaders with universities and research bodies, including CEPRI and the Beijing Electric Power Construction Research Institute, to develop engineering design and manufacturing of key equipment. A record-breaking UHV AC step-up transformer, with a rated voltage of 1100 kV and three-phase rated capacity of 1200 MVA, was produced jointly by the five power generation companies together with the SGCC, CEPRI and TBEA Shenyang Transformer Group (600089.CH). The SGCC also developed full technology specifications for a set of UHV equipment through its own research, obtaining 431 patents and setting 15 national standards. It has acquired a listed primary equipment producer, Henan Pinggao (600312.CH), and a secondary equipment producer, XJ Electric (000400.CH), to expand its UHV manufacturing capability.

If China succeeds in becoming the first country to operate both UHV AC and DC lines at full capacity, it will be well placed in export markets where the SGCC is already expanding. After winning the right in 2007 to run an electricity distribution network with local partners in the Philippines, the grid company purchased seven distributors in Brazil and obtained a 30-year right to transmit power to the southeastern region of Brazil in 2010, as described in our report on the growing economic links between the two countries. TBEA and XD Electric (601179.CH), which are among the few companies able to manufacture UHV equipment, have won contracts to supply transformers and switchgear substations to India. Chinese grid suppliers are also actively seeking business opportunities in the US, Mexico and Russia.

Why DC transmission will move faster

Since safety and reliability are the foremost concerns in power grid development, we believe that installation of lines using the more mature DC technology will move faster than those with UHV AC. It took only five months for the central government to give the green light for the Xiangjiaba-Shanghai demonstration DC line compared with 20 months for the Jincheng-Jingzhou 1000 kV AC line.

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