May 22, 2024
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HTSI aims to bring robust superconductor industry to Santa Barbara

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The HTSI team outside their headquarters in downtown Santa Barbara. (courtesy photo)

Ray Karam is no stranger to the startup world, but his latest company — High Temperature Superconductors — is more than a startup, it is a true passion project that is beginning to make a big impact from its Santa Barbara headquarters.

“It’s not as though I had to start another company. Financially, I could have retired,” Karam told the Business Times.

“I did it more from an environmental and an ethical point of view.”

In late April, HTSI, an innovation leader in the field of high-temperature superconducting tape, received its $5 million grant from the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy, a subsect from within the U.S. Department of Energy to begin its new manufacturing technologies project under the superconducting tape exploratory topic.

The company will also be partnering with two esteemed entities, Advanced Conductor Technologies and Florida State University’s National Mag Lab.

The goal of the funding is to allow HTSI, a leader in the field of high-temperature superconducting tape, to improve the quality and speed of the pulsed laser deposition process — the manufacturing process used to leave the deposition as a thin film on the target.

Overall, the goal of the program is to increase production speed and reduce the cost of high-temperature superconductor tape to support the development of transformational energy technology applications for fusion power reactors, power transmission cables, and electric aircraft.

HTSI received the largest fraction of the award granted under the $10 million fund.

“That is because the process that we are using is the only process that has consistently shown that it can make long lengths of high-quality wire. And since we’re the only ones in the nation doing it, I think the Department of Energy understood that,” Karam said.

The main drive of HTSI, and Karam, is high-temperature superconductor wires — a wire that reaches levels below 183 Celsius. 

At that level, the material has no resistance and creates its own magnetic field.

Power cables, which have been the cause of many wildfires, even here on the Central Coast, are limited to about 100 amps of current per square centimeter. HTS wire would be able to carry roughly 2 million amps per square centimeter.

“That’s a really interesting thing for power transmission,” Karam said.

“But the real driving force is fusion.”

Fusion is essentially repeating the process that enables the sun in a container, so creating a sun in a container. 

That process creates a lot of heat.

“That heat can boil water, that water can spin turbines and we get electricity. Electricity that is pretty abundant, pretty cheap, and no CO2,” Karam said.

“That’s the real driver for this. My generation has probably contributed most to CO2 and so we should be the most concerned really about giving back and taking it out so we need to find a way to create abundant CO2-free energy. That’s my motivation in all of this.”

It’s also important to note, that the majority of HTS wire around the world comes from Russia and China, which is why the U.S. is interested in having these processes around the country to be self-reliant.

And, if the key processes around these high-temperature superconductors are built in Santa Barbara, “Then an ecosystem gets built around it,” Karam said.

That means high-paying jobs, a robust manufacturing capability here on the Central Coast and more.

“Those outside of Santa Barbara don’t realize that this is a this is pretty high-tech bastion. Everybody thinks of it as wine and the beach, but it’s not just sea and surf.”

Karam has been interested in the field since 1985 when it was more of an “oddity” than a business idea, he said.

However, his interest in wanting to help the environment was his major driver this time around when he founded the company in 2019.

At the time, he was actually working at Corning, one of the largest fiber companies in the world, and attempted to get them to do it, but they passed — so he founded HTSI, especially since other environmental avenues are more competitive.

“Nobody’s doing PLD deposition of high-temperature superconducting wire. That almost inherently gives me an advantage in time to learn because I’m not running up against an entrenched competitor,” Karam said.

The company hasn’t been taking it slow though.

Real work in earnest didn’t begin until about 2021, as Covid-19 had pushed the timeline back, but the company is revving at full throttle now.

In 2022, HTSI acquired Boston-based PVD Products, a specialist in large-area pulsed laser deposition systems and equipment utilizing thin film physical vapor deposition techniques.

As of 2024, the company’s Santa Barbara headquarters is about 98% complete, said Karam, needing just one more tool to be built which should be complete within the next year.

“Thanks to our team in Boston, with their help, we’ve been able to bring this factory up for this industry in record time. Other companies in this industry have taken 20 years to get this far,” Karam said.

HTSI employs about 26 people, the majority of which are from the Boston office they acquired. 

But Karam’s goal is to become a 60-70 person company with the majority of those jobs working in the manufacturing plant in Santa Barbara.

HTSI is the best-funded company Karam has ever had, with the CEO saying they have raised over $30 million in funding and currently raising a C round.

An engineer at heart, Karam said he isn’t sure how long he will be the one leading the company, but he does know while he’s doing it, leading it with an environment-first lens is most important.

“To get CO2 out of the environment, it’s critical to not be wasteful. Part of what we do here, is we send the water out of this building hundreds of times clean times cleaner than it comes into it. We have no smokestacks. We don’t pollute the environment. We are completely compliant with all water air quality disposal regulations. I think it’s important that everyone know that we do this in the greenest possible way. It’s not the cheapest way. But it is the greatest way,” Karam said.

“If you’re trying to get to clean up the environment, no matter what it is cleaning up CO2 as a cleanup, then you shouldn’t be making it worse. And we don’t.”

email: jmercado@pacbiztimes.com