Making Greener, Safer Transformers

With the help of PowerBridgeNY, the HIGHEST Transformers company aims for cleaner, safer electrical technology that could save billions of dollars a year.

Making Greener, Safer Transformers

What if one component of the electrical grid could be redesigned to be safer and more environmentally-friendly, plus save the United States billions of dollars each year? Engineers-turned-entrepreneurs Saeed Jazebi, PhD, and Francisco de Leon, PhD, from the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, are bringing their clean-tech to the marketplace to accomplish exactly this task. The product, HIGH Efficiency Shielded Toroidal (HIGHEST) Transformers, is designed to be a reliable and cost-efficient clean-energy alternative to traditional transformers for use by electric utilities. With new energy efficiency standards from the U.S. Department of Energy that went into effect in January 2016, the timing is deal for HIGHEST Transformers to enter the field of electrical engineering with a unique green technology.

Jazebi and de Leon honed their product and started their company as part of a proof-of-concept center (POCC) program called PowerBridgeNY, which provides early-stage investments and services to help inventors and scientists turn their high-tech, clean-energy ideas into successful businesses. The POCC, for which the Academy serves in an advisory capacity, is funded through a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). 

Typically, transformers transfer electrical energy between two or more circuits via electromagnetic induction; because it's not efficient to transmit electricity at a low voltage across long distances, transformers increase or decrease the alternating voltages in electric power applications. Ideally these transformers would operate at 100% efficiency, but energy losses linked to transformer inefficiencies are estimated at 60-80 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), carrying a cost of approximately $4 billion per year. In addition, the coils of toroidal transformers are often insulated and cooled with mineral oil that can have a risk of leaking, or even exploding. As part of their work with PowerBridgeNY, Jazebi and de Leon set out to develop a more reliable dry (non-oil) toroidal transformer that is environmentally friendly and has a lower risk of explosions.

With the technology developed during their participation in the POCC program, HIGHEST Transformers are capable of significantly reducing energy losses and thus cutting energy costs. "HIGHEST Transformers are comprised of a continuous steel strip that is wound into a doughnut shape (toroidal iron core) and then wrapped entirely in coils. The core has a gapless construction with extremely low no-load losses," Jazebi explains. A specialty designed electrostatic shield, new winding strategy, and amorphous iron cores allow the smaller transformers to be comparable in price and efficiency to larger transformers that use oil.

PowerBridgeNY also helped to provide HIGHEST Transformers with the business expertise and knowledge that is extremely beneficial-but not always accessible-to startups. "The resources that they provide such as workshops and hourly meetings with lawyers and accountants are invaluable for startup companies," Jazebi emphasized. "The conferences and networking events assisted us in connecting with national labs, large manufacturing companies, and electric utilities to test the product as well as understand the market." With this aid, HIGHEST Transformers achieved two extremely valuable milestones:  the company became an incorporated business, and received a National Science Foundation Small Business Technology Transfer Research grant to further develop their ideas and research.

Next steps for HIGHEST Transformers include manufacturing up to five prototypes to be tested according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association standard test codes and then implement pilot programs with utility companies and work with large transformer manufacturers or venture capitalists. Because of the new energy efficiency standards are poised to save 3.63 quadrillion BTUs of energy for equipment sold over the next 30 years, it is an ideal time for HIGHEST Transformers to enter the marketplace since there will be a greater demand than ever for this cleantech.

More than anything, the potential impact of this technology drives the research and development of HIGHEST Transformers. "We owe the environment to future generations; we have to maintain it. This is the prime factor of our progress," stated Jazebi. "Providing U.S. residents a better place to live with innovative engineering and design motivates us to innovate on this path."

Learn more about NYSERDA's energy-focused Proof of Concept Centers in this podcast from the Academy.