A Transformative Development

With the Help of PowerBridgeNY, a Tandon Team Makes Electrical Transformers Greener

Most laypeople give little thought to the electricity that they use. Flip a switch, and the light turns on, the washing machine starts, or the blender whirls. But behind the scenes, transformers are at work, reducing the high-voltage electricity being generated at plants across the country to voltages low enough to power our homes and offices without mishap.

Transformers are crucial because it would not be very efficient to transmit low-voltage electricity across long distances. Still, the system as it exists is imperfect, and even the high efficiency of today’s transformers leads to energy loss that is estimated to cost some $4 billion every year. Another issue presented by conventional transformers is the necessity of mineral oil, which can leak or, in a worst-case scenario, even cause an explosion.

Associate Professor Francisco de Leon of New York University Tandon School of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Saeed Jazebi, who earned his doctoral degree from the school in 2014, have been working on a way to make medium voltage distribution transformers cleaner, safer, more efficient, and cost-effective. Their product, the HIGH Efficiency Shielded Toroidal (HIGHEST) Transformer, is made of a continuous steel strip wound into a doughnut shape and wrapped entirely in coils that do not require oiling. An electrostatic shield, gapless construction, and core made of amorphous iron allow the transformer to significantly reduce energy loss — and thus cost.

The technology developed by the pair, who recently won backing from the NSF Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, comes at an auspicious time: in early 2016 new efficiency standards from the U.S. Department of Energy went into effect, with the goal of saving more than 3.5 quadrillion BTUs of energy for transformers sold over the next three decades.

Jazebi and de Leon conducted their work as participants in PowerBridgeNY, a consortium of university-based Proof of Concept Centers (POCC) funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and aimed at providing early-stage investment and advice to help scientists turn their clean-energy ideas into successful businesses.

Jazebi says that the Tandon-based POCC was instrumental in helping HIGHEST Transformers incorporate as a business and attract STTR backing. “The workshops they organized and the meetings they arranged for us with lawyers and accountants were invaluable,” he explained. “They also presented us with many opportunities to network, and because of that we met with national labs, established manufacturing companies, and electric utilities, so that we could test our product and understand the market."

The partners are now readying additional prototypes for utility required testing in accordance with the standards of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, in preparation for the implementation of pilot programs with utilities.

"We owe the environment to future generations," Jazebi asserted. "Using innovative engineering and design to better the world is our main motivation."