Lucrative tech deal to slash Beijing subway energy use

Research from Victoria University of Wellington’s Robinson Research Institute as part of a new multi-million-dollar joint venture deal will underpin ground-breaking technology that could see the heavy energy use of Beijing’s subway system cut by forty percent.

The deal between Robinson and Milestone Science and Technology Ltd, based in the Jiangsu Province, near Shanghai, will see the formation of three new companies and will be a boon for New Zealand’s high-value manufacturing industry.

As well as the subway technology, portable compact magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems will be built to improve medical services in remote areas of China.

Potential sales of the two technologies run into tens of millions of dollars.

“This is an opportunity for cutting-edge high temperature superconducting [HTS] technology developed by the Robinson Research Institute in New Zealand to access multi-million-dollar high-tech markets in China and at the same time open up those markets for other New Zealand companies,” says Robinson Director Professor Bob Buckley.

Milestone chairman Mi Wang says he was “drawn to Robinson because of its ability to develop market-ready technology based on an in-depth understanding of science and engineering. It is one of the few places with the experience to design and build the high-speed HTS rotors needed for the subway flywheels my company is developing”. When Mr Mi learned Robinson was developing a portable compact MRI system, known as the podMRI, he saw substantial additional market opportunities.

Two of the new companies will be based in the Jiangsu Zhongguancun Science and Technology Industrial Park as part of a superconductivity innovation centre. The third will sit alongside Robinson in the Gracefield Innovation Quarter, Lower Hutt. It will contract research and development from Robinson and other parts of Victoria University of Wellington, and will develop and manufacture HTS products using components sourced from other New Zealand companies. The products will then be marketed by the China companies.

The new relationships will open access for New Zealand to multi-million-dollar investment funds. The funds will drive the development and marketing of the HTS flywheel and podMRI at first, with other products to follow.

Professor Buckley will be a Distinguished Foreign Expert within the China companies and Robinson a partner in both, with the new Lower Hutt company their subsidiary.

One of the China companies will develop the HTS flywheel—initially for Beijing’s subway system, one of the city’s biggest energy users, says Robinson Principal Engineer Dr Rod Badcock.

“The HTS flywheel is effectively an energy storage device—when trains slow down to stop at stations the flywheel will store the train’s kinetic energy and can later supply it back to them to help with take-off. Currently, a great deal of energy is expended in braking and accelerating trains. With the HTS flywheel to capture and reuse this energy, the savings are estimated to be as high as forty percent of the energy used by the Beijing subway system.

“Energy storage not only represents the potential for energy saving in subway systems but also in supporting renewable energy generation. The same technology can be used to store energy generated by solar or wind, so in periods of low-energy production a store can be tapped into as needed.”

The second China company will focus on the podMRI. Professor Buckley says it will represent a significant advance for China’s approximately 5,000 regional hospitals. “For many, there are barriers to moving from a low-field MRI, which is relatively low resolution but easy to install, to a high-performance high-field MRI, which can run to millions of dollars and require substantial support for installation and maintenance. The advantage of the podMRI technology is it is low-cost, lightweight, easy to install and cost-effective to maintain but with a substantial increase in resolution compared with existing low-cost systems.”

Our 2015-2018 Vice-Provost (Research), Professor Kate McGrath, says the partnership is a reflection of Robinson’s world-leading research. “The agreement, made with the help of the University’s commercialisation office, Wellington UniVentures, and officials from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has come about as a result of an international search for the right research partner for Milestone. The investment by the company is further proof of the calibre of research and development happening at Robinson, and the potential this research has to make a substantial impact through stimulating economic opportunities in New Zealand and addressing energy needs and improving health and wellbeing globally.”

The University has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Beijing Jiaotong University, which will see PhD students spending up to twelve months working with Robinson staff, including on the new companies’ products.

Funding over many years from MBIE and its predecessors and KiwiNet has supported Robinson’s research and development into HTS.