President of Advanced Magnet Lab

The Industrial Revolution was precipitated by a breakthrough technology, the steam engine.  It transformed manufacturing, transportation and therefore changed the world.  The same thing happened with the advent of the internal combustion engine; soon, the term “horse power” had a whole new meaning.  Automobiles and then airplanes became as commonplace as wagons.  Mark Senti, president of Advanced Magnet Lab, refers to these as “Disruptive Technologies” – they break what some call the “Alpha Barrier” and change the way we work and travel; basically they change how we do life.  To talk with Mark or any of his colleagues at Advanced Magnet Lab opens one’s eyes to the threshold upon which we could be standing.  Namely, how super conductivity can address many of our energy challenges and open the doors to new technologies of which we have yet to even dream.

SCB: Explain why superconductivity is such a global game changer.

MS: Between the locations where power is generated – whether that is an offshore wind turbine, a solar panel on the roof, or a conventional fossil fuel or nuclear power plant – and where that energy is delivered you have immediate and dramatic losses.  With all energy production, alternative or conventional, you have the same problem, namely the inefficiency of how that power is generated, stored and transferred.  That is the “Holy Grail” of superconductivity, increasing efficiency from 70 to 90{099636d13cf70efd8d812c6f6a5a855fb6f8f27f35bea282d2df1d5ae896e2c2}, up to and beyond 99{099636d13cf70efd8d812c6f6a5a855fb6f8f27f35bea282d2df1d5ae896e2c2} efficiency.

SCB: So this type of technology is the key to making the others economically feasible?

MS: We are quickly closing the gap and in many cases the gap has been closed in causing these systems not just to be the right choice, because of the impact it has on the environment or on our trade imbalance, but because it is the best business decision, in terms of a cost/benefit ratio.  Certain technologies would not be possible without super conductive magnets, like the one most people are familiar with, the medical application known as the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging).  In that case it wasn’t a “disruptive technology” it was an “enabling technology”, it made this diagnostic device possible.

SCB: Are offshore wind turbines one such example?

MS: Definitely.  Though AML has put a lot of time and energy into wind technology, there are multiple problems that have to and will be solved before this kind of power generation comes on line at the levels currently being projected as goals.  They have to be manufactured, transferred, anchored and installed, then the power has to be transferred efficiently onto the grid; these are challenges too big and complex for our company alone to take on.  What we supply is the technology that serves much like Intel, which supplies chips and processors in the computer industry.  Intel doesn’t make the rest of the components; they make them faster and more effective.  They focus solely on that essential technology and so do we.

SCB: So part of your job is finding and developing collaborative partnerships?

MS: Yes and those alliances are quickly being forged.  In fact, that is one of the challenges right here on the Space Coast.  We have an incredibly intelligent and creative talent pool, yet many individuals and companies are not aware that each other exists or more importantly, they don’t realize how what they are doing could be adapted or modified for applications with other technologies.

SCB: Hence the recent Energy Symposium at the Florida Solar Energy Center?

MS: Energy is the driving force in the global economy and the value proposition for what we call ‘renewable energy’ will close, I believe along with others, much sooner than we think.  Especially since the goal is 5 percent in 5 years and 20 percent by 2020.  The question is: ‘Where will this technology be developed and where will the half million people and the businesses they work for and support on the Space Coast, go to purchase this technology?’  Unless we begin to see ourselves as a manufacturer or supplier, rather than just a consumer, Florida and Brevard County will continue to lag behind.

SCB:  Did the Symposium meet your expectations?

MS: We put that together rather quickly and primarily used networking for promotion.  The response was overwhelming.  A few years ago, we might have had a couple of dozen people, but there were several hundred, with standing room only, and national media attention.  The key is going to be follow-up.  I believe we are putting into place a team that is totally committed to developing this region into a viable economic cluster, which is concentrating on making energy in our area what computer technology did in the Santa Clara Valley of CA.

We have so many assets – a huge brain trust, a skilled workforce, and access to all four transportation hubs, air, interstate, rail and a world class port.  Someone is going to do it somewhere.  We have to get on the leading edge of this development, as we have already missed some incredible opportunities because we weren’t prepared to respond.  What we need now are a few small successes, which can snowball into an avalanche.

SCB: Can you identify a specific opportunity we missed?

MS: The Department of Energy wanted a test facility for large turbines.  We had all the necessary assets, transportation, world class universities and the ability to potentially move from development to manufacturing.  This was a $45 million grant, but it went to Clemson University.  Granted, they were the location General Electric wanted, but we were offering too little, too late.

SCB: Who’s responsible?

MS: Well, everyone, but we need to realize the solutions and the innovations are not going to come from government, but from business.  Government has a role and can either facilitate or hamstring progress.  When the Governor of Michigan introduces herself she says, “I am the Governor of Michigan, a manufacturing state.”  That is a powerful statement that you don’t hear political leaders in the “Sunshine State” making.  However, business has the primary incentive, the creative resources and the ability to respond and adapt.  They are by nature innovation-oriented and therefore it is business that will make this possible.

SCB: Moving back to AML, what is the most promising new development you are working on, moving from future potential to the present application?

MS: Data Centers are the most obvious and immediate benefactors of our innovations.  They consume huge quantities of power, they have to deal with the heat their equipment generates and the energy losses in converting from A/C high power current to low power D/C current, which are staggering.  Many operate between 70 to 80 percent efficiency, we can bring them up to 99 percent.  In Brevard County alone, data centers constitute $350-500 million annually; in the nation it is upwards of $40 billion.  Unlike other energy applications, we can develop the systems that are needed, without dependence on other companies to develop additional complementary or essential components.

SCB: What are the most exciting applications of superconductive magnet technology on the horizon?

MS: The applications are limitless; in transportation alone it will change everything.  In the medical field, the ability to steer and deliver medications non-evasively is staggering.

One space veteran said about our technology, that it reminded him of when we developed the transistor.  Overnight it made the vacuum tube obsolete, but no one even dreamed of the myriad of unforeseen applications it would spawn.