Kurz Wind Division’s Dan Frantz had the pleasure of interviewing Neel Sheth from Mersen USA. We sat down with Neel to understand more about how Mersen has become an expert in electrical power and advanced materials within the wind sector.
Dan F.: Ladies and gentlemen for the third installment of the Kurz industrial solutions one division podcast we have Neel Sheth from Mersen USA. Neel’s wind power applications manager at Mersen USA. Obviously, Mersen is a global expert in electrical power and advanced materials. Mersen designs innovative solutions to address its client’s specific needs and enable them to optimize their operations. They have over sixty-nine hundred employees operating in 35 countries and provide purpose-designed solutions bespoke to customer requirements anywhere on the planet. Neel that’s a pretty big introduction I would say. Obviously, the reputation of the company speaks for itself. Firstly, thanks for coming on this show here and we really do appreciate the time.
Neel: Thanks for having me and is a great initiative you have there Dan and always are always here to help.
Dan F.: Yeah absolutely. So, Neel, we’ve got a list of questions here. We’re going to let it kind of free flow so feel free to add in or chime in anything that you like but we’re going to dive right into it. I would imagine you weren’t you know 5 years old telling your parents you wanted to be a wind power engineer maybe you’re the anomaly here. I’m not 100 percent sure but I certainly didn’t think I’d be in the industry even just five years ago right. I’d love for you to take me through some of your background and how you ended up working at a company like Mersen USA and what decisions eventually led you to be in this awesome role that you’re in today.
Neel: Yeah. So it’s been an interesting journey so far. Actually, I’m an aerospace engineer I started off with a bachelors in aerospace from Russia and wanted to do something offbeat so I ended up in a school there in Russia of all the places. Super cold, as I found out when I went there but after that my focus back then was mostly satellite design and upper stage rockets but then I decided to go for a master’s degree and then ended up at Penn State which actually focuses quite a bit on wind energy in the aerospace department. So that was my foray into wind energy and rotating machines as such. Penn State has a great program. They have two small scale turbines on campus. I think they have a one-kilowatt and then there is a five-kilowatt machine. And after that during grad school, I actually worked at Toulon as an intern in Chicago so which was my ideal exposure to utility-scale when in the U.S. after that it was quite interesting. I was presenting in we are and my research was based on optimizing small scale turbines – what they call distributed wind. And I met the team from Mersen four years ago I would think now. Yeah, that was back in 2015. And since then it was a good fit. They were looking for someone hands-on, I fit the role and I’ve been with them since and it’s been a great journey so far.
Dan F.: That’s excellent. So, you’re at Penn State, they’ve got a great aerospace program. Did you have to make a decision at any point to go either directly into the wind or go elsewhere and to rockets and other sectors?
Neel: It was it was quite interesting they offered a range of rotating machinery science but one of the most interesting things I found there was the icing chamber. They actually have a giant fridge with equipment donated by NASA to study icing on blades of rotating machines – either it could be a chopper or it could be a wind turbine. Many wind turbines in cold regions face icing conditions and I’ve seen issues, loss of performance, so there was a big research program at that time and a push to understand icing of wind turbine blades. I found that pretty neat. They had some deicing technology research. They had high-speed cameras that captured blades spinning at 400RPM – a section of a wind turbine blade obviously, a whole blade wouldn’t fit in the fridge. That was pretty neat recaptured icing mechanisms. We captured the deicing on the blade and there’s a wind tunnel where we put these ice bleeds and study performance degradation. So that kind of led me to this you know further digging too deep science of wind turbines and so on and so forth. Which then, of course, led to the internship. And then I was hooked so to speak from then, it’s pretty cool…
Dan F.: So, would you say that it’s appropriate that you’re a, you know, quote-unquote “brush guy” or “brush nerd”. You know obviously I know you’re all Mersen but would you say that’s your unofficial title then?
Neel: There are better experts than me. My manager, He’s been in this industry for over a decade now and we have experts in our company who have been in the brush business say for three decades almost. Technical roles. So, for me, compared to 30 years, I have four. I wouldn’t say I’m fully an expert yet but we learn as we go there are new turbines out there trying to be hands-on, trying to get into every kind of turbine out there, learn about their systems and trying to optimize and tweak them. There’s so much we learn on the field, to be honest. You’d think you’d know everything and then you find something new and you’re like wow even this is a possibility so we are learning as we go so to speak.
Dan F.: We could talk about the technical side of brushes but why don’t we simplify it for the people out there that aren’t the wind turbine technicians or the engineers. For me, if you ask me three to five years ago what is a brush in a wind turbine I would have thought that they’re giant toothbrushes that helped clean the inside of the cell. Right. I think there’s a lot of people out there that have some misconceptions about what brushes are and what role they play within the wind turbine itself. Could you walk us through just simply breaking down the brush and how it actually enables the power transmission down-tower?
Neel: So when you have a rotating machine like a wind turbine or a textile mill, for example, it could be anything. Even if you have some high bar tools which are like drills and things like that, you need to move electricity from a stationary object to a rotating object. In the generator or a wind turbine, that rotating object is at first the blade which then rotates a shaft which then rotates gearboxes and at the end, there are a generator and the gen shaft. Now if you generate electricity in a generator How do you transfer it to cables and a transformer which are obviously stationary right? So this interface of a rotating part with a stationary part needs to have a sliding contact, so that sliding contact is a brush. If you have the other way in which you need to transfer electricity from a power source into a shaft in order to rotate it, Let’s take an example of trains where you have power generated saved from coal or steam turbines and you want to transfer this bar into the wheels of a train. Obviously, you have a different communication system there but in general, there is a brush that acts as a sliding contact. The brush obviously is a consumable so due to friction since it slides, it does wear out and that is the basic principle of what a brush does. Either take away energy from a generator or bring energy to a wheel or part that needs to rotate so to speak. I hope I hope that was clear enough or simple enough. I tried to break it down as much as I could.
Dan F.: So, without sharing the secret sauce right, could you tell us just a basic composition breakdown of what is actually in a brush. I think some people still might think OK it’s Brussels riding on a shaft.
Neel: That used to be the case when this technology goes back to the 60s even, 18 hundred even if you dig back into rotating machinery rotating equipment. The Eighteen hundred is when all this began and it used to be actual bristles of metal like metallic bristles brushing up sitting against a rotating disc. That does exist today in very specific machines but it’s moved on to a block of carbon. So, what starts off is carbon in a powdered form, mixed with metals mostly copper and some sort of impregnation in terms of resins or there are all sorts of stuff that goes in there would you and I wouldn’t know. So Mersen’s research and development is in France and the secret sauce is actually in France and it’s almost like a recipe in water. I have no idea I could tell you what to put in there you know. But the basics are its carbon mixed with a portion of metal powders. These get mixed in. They need to be homogeneous and then it gets compressed into a block under high pressure. These blocks are then chopped and cut into the shape of the brush holder and then obviously once the shape is obtained they get the two cables, what we call the shunts and the terminals and it’s pretty much how we have a rush.
Dan F.: Yeah, it’s fantastic. So, I want to move along to the history of Mersen so dating back to 1892 I think Mersen Carbone was the actual name of the company that’s correct in France. Obviously, you’ve been around for over 100 years. Purves has been around for 100 years but we’ve stayed pretty local in the Wisconsin area. If you had to dial it down to about three to five attributes of success that directly contributed to the long-term growth of Mersen, what would those be in your opinion?
Neel: So, I can speak for the US market. So far what from what I’ve experienced and the way I work and the way the team here in the US works are we always put the customer first. We are on almost like a 9 1 1 line for helping out any customer that needs help, be it on the engineering side, the design side, field support whatever it is. We have a team that’s on the go. I personally drive 50 percent. There’re new members on the team with technicians who are on the road 90 percent. My first two years here as well I was on the road 90 percent so we try to keep it customer-focused and they see that customers do see value in that. The second and important thing is we’re not there just to be there. We do bring expertise so years and decades of precious knowledge is with this company, with the team here. I can tell you one of the technical managers who started off training everyone has been a brush expert for the past 25 years. So, the technical expertise is really key. You know that we bring it to the field the training being done the programs that we have. We try to stay up to date and then we have a constant back and forth between the R&D teams and the engineering team and design teams to make sure we are at the forefront of this technology, to try to make sure we are ahead of the game. The third and you know the other thing is also we want to adapt to any machine as it evolves with time, the requirements change. So, with time we have had to adapt to the turbines themselves since if you look at the sizes if you go out California I mean they have to be in the single go in your region you can see the progression of wind energy it’s been quite interesting since the early 2000s we’ve come a long way and obviously even the brush is a small part in the turbine. It has had to evolve and the whole brush system has had to evolve since 20 years ago I would say in a turbine-specific context.
Dan F.: It’s fantastic. California anytime you take a trip out there it is so neat to see, what are those, three hundred fifty kilowatt machines?
Neel: Yeah there’s a huge project. It’s fun out there, they have some with two blades on them and I don’t know how they’re still running, to be honest.
Dan F.: Obviously great technicians, shout out to anybody in California yet working on those still. Nowadays just for the listeners, you can find onshore machines that are upwards of 3, 4 even 5 megawatts. Enecon which is I believe a European company and they’ve got a pretty decent hold over on that market. They have a five or six-megawatt machine now for onshore wind which is unbelievable to me.
Neel: They’re getting bigger for sure.
More About Brushes
Dan F.: Which is awesome too. Per tower, you’re generating more energy which obviously can be distributed to homes, businesses and having a measurable impact on the community. So people here listening they might have some issues but their brushes maybe they’re seeing uneven wear limited brush lives may be just a couple years of brush life. Maybe the performance isn’t very strong. Could see some grooving on their slip rings. Let’s say they wanted to proceed to collect some data on the Mersen brushes for their towers. What is a brush test and what data do you actually look at to justify the investment to somebody who’s actively looking to make a brush switch?
Neel: So we follow a standard protocol. We essentially have protocols for testing inspections and upgrades. The problems you listed are very real. Everyone and anyone has seen some degree of it at their wind farm. If they have not then course you’ve been very lucky and I’d like to go to those farms too. But in the grand scheme of things, there’s a standard protocol for everything. We start off with first assessing what is the need at the site. If you sometimes, you know, if you have a year running, a year’s life on the brushes some sites are satisfied with what they say “hey if you can make it to the next annual cycle we’re good”. There are some sites so if you go out there and they’re getting three years and they’re still up for say five or six we try to approach that as well and see what we can do to fine-tune that system right. You want to reduce operational costs. That’s goal number one and increase reliability. So no surprises, no turbines down on Friday. I know everyone hates that. And so it’s been evolving and we’ve tried to iron out all these little wrinkles over time with the technology we bring. So we as a customer approaches are saying “hey we have a problem a b and c” we might start with just C say “OK let’s try and fix this first and give you six months of observation”. We go out there and we climb with them. We actually change the text to use the tools that we use. And there are so many things going on in that Birchbox. Not a lot of documentation out that actually speaks about the issues that can come up. There’s a number of things that affect a brush are running in that turbine. So we try to educate as well. We also have a seminar series, we go to a central location and then invite anyone who’s free for a two hour lunch session and we do like a lunch and learn kind of a thing to educate everyone on how to better maintain, how to better clean, how to look for problems in their in brush systems. And that’s been helping quite a bit over the past two years I think we did almost seven or eight seminars and you know we’ve had attendance from two people the first time, to forty-five. So there’s been a big range and anyone who’s interested is more than welcome. I think we did a few with Kurds as well and in collaboration, that was great. And I’m sure that there’s that component of it. And then there’s the second the follow up is also key. So we do provide support to start analyzing the problems on the steps to fix them and then we do keep going back. We do give follow up support in terms of inspections and then we do provide sound technical reporting to kind of explain to them “hey listen this is where we found. This is what you were looking for and this is what we have fixed or addressed in terms of problems and here’s what you can expect from your machines in the future”. Personally what I’ve been doing is I’ve been trying to make it a very scientific method in which we’ve been trying to make sure you know if you get numbers on one machine there’s a way to duplicate that across the wind farm so that this way, if a technician installed here this is what will happen in this machine on a turbine. If you run it like this they should be able to use that information and apply to all hundred on the site then that swipe at Esther is applicable. So we try to keep it as applied as possible and we try to keep it as representative of the site as possible. So those are the few things and all of it is listed in the protocol when we start off projects. This way everyone has expectations lined up. There are no surprises and the requirements at the end of the year are met in case someone says Well we expect a six-year life when we started this project we do we don’t want that sort of surprise to come up. So we do make sure everyone’s clear on what the expectation is.
Dan F.: That’s very good. And what would you say are the three most common solutions that the site is looking for? Is it wear rate, is it the life of the brush? Could you give three simple ones, just rattle them off?
Neel: Yeah. So you listed two of them wear rates, lower wear rates everyone likes lower rates. No wonder turbines run cooler obviously. So long as science experience extreme environments hot summers cold winters. So they want their turbines to withstand those they want their burst system to be able to handle that. And one of the other things is just simple reliability. They don’t want any sort of strange rash behaviors and they want to reduce costs. First, if you address the brush wear you just immediately address the second and the third almost because if you have better brush wear you probably are not running too hot and you also giving them the most bang for their buck in terms of purchasing the consumables. So if you address one or two of those some pretty much the sites are happy with the result.
Dan F.: That’s excellent. So you do great work today in you’re gathering all this data for different customers. How do you see things changing in the future with the brush technology we’ve already kind of talked about the megawatt output of these new turbines, do you foresee brushes lasting longer? A brush that can last a decade instead of five years or three years? And overall what’s the vision of Mersen that you can at least share with us?
Neel: I think we’d probably be out of business for the ten-year brush but that’s the dream, right? One brush change in two decades. I think it’s more it’s more complicated than that because if you’re going to keep in mind as the turbine production numbers go up the load’s increase. So if you have higher loads now you need more robust systems which obviously if you look into any design like a design problem the robustness is always correlated directly with the pricing and so on and so forth. So if you start to increase the system’s size and things like that the pricing keeps going up so we got to find that balance and there is a lot of stuff going on. The buzzword is now data and digitization and all that. So we’re trying to try to keep up as I said one of the key things we try to do is try to keep up with the market so we will work obviously with the OEMs whatever is on its set as a design and design requirement from the actual manufacturers of the turbines. We have to meet otherwise as a company we wouldn’t do well. So we work with a lot of OEMs. We have a bunch of OEM approvals and they do approach us to work with them on newer technologies and so on and so forth. So that’s pretty much what’s going to be defining the future of this technology is the design requirements. And we have to make sure we are in line with the expectations wherever they are.
Dan F.: Interesting. So this is the last question before a rapid-fire round and I’ve actually thrown you a curveball here. So Neel and I sort of went through some questions together but this just is a spur of the moment questions feel free to decline if you don’t want to answer. But Kurds internally has been discussing the internet of things right. The connectivity to the cloud with all these different technologies. How do you foresee brushes adopting that principle and just the overall brush system within a wind turbine?
Neel: There’s there’s already some stuff out there. If you start Googling about it. Any system mechanical or electrical has to keep up with the times and get on the IOT train and I do see some but there are so many challenges you see, first of all, the sensors would need to be kind of dust-resistant because you have so many challenging the environment in the sleeping compartment is challenging. So personally, I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I’d love to have an app on my phone that would help me know what’s going on in the Springboks before I climb that would be great. The ideas are out there. There’s some technology out there it’s still decent but I think at some point or the other it has to happen. The second point I have spoken about with some technicians engineers. And the question I get is Well is it worth it. Because if you think of it adds a lot of costs. And once in six months, you do have a person in that cell checking in on the press box. So if you have a reliable enough brush in there do you need to spend more to make it a smart system? That’s a debate.
Dan F.: No, it makes sense and you talked about having a robust design but that also increases costs. The same principle probably applies here. Does the cost-benefit analysis pan out to long term profitability especially when you have somebody gone up tower every six months? Look, I learned something new with this. You know I thought that’s the exact direction the market was going but you open my mind to something else so I appreciate that.
Neel: If we design something that’s lab run runs great for six months there is a person up there checking on it at this six-month mark. So it’s a question.
Rapid Fire Round
Dan F.: Let’s move to our rapid fire round, you ready?
Neel: I don’t know what’s in store. Sure let’s go ahead.
Dan F.: Keep it concise. All right. First one. What’s your favorite part about going up tower?
Neel: The view. A lot of sites are in beautiful locations. I look forward to just taking a peek out of that cell and checking out the view. I don’t think a lot of people have that opportunity.
Dan F.: So any State in particular that you’re willing to share?
Neel: Oregon is beautiful. Right by the atrocities that I had some beautiful views in Texas as well and then up in and around upstate New York area. I’ve been there in Fall and the colors are just amazing.
Dan F.: It’s phenomenal. So you’re from India. Well, first you went to Russia which I just learned that today and then you came to Penn State in the United States. Now living in New Jersey. If there is one thing that you can bring back to the United States from home in India what would that be?
Neel: Well I’m from India but I did grow up in the Middle East. So I spent most of my childhood in Qatar actually in Doha. It’s a small country. So I’ve been all over a bit. One thing is there’s a lot of good food here Indian food especially in New Jersey. But there’s still something’s missing. I think I’m spoiled because I’ve lived there and even local. But it’s getting there. So, in general, I think the food the food is what I would maybe improve.
Dan F.: Good. You took me to lunch when I was in New Jersey a couple of months back and it was a phenomenal choice for me to definitely trust your judgment on the food aspect of this.
Neel: I’m a foodie so. So I’m a little you know a little picky when it comes to actually authentic food experiences. So that’s pretty much the one thing that comes to mind first.
Dan F.: I think a lot of us who like to travel become foodies organically get to find the right restaurants in the best places. I get it. Let’s say you’re 16 years old right and you ended up becoming an aerospace engineer. Incredible. What’s let’s put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. They’re 16 right now they’re in high school they’re doing exceptionally well with their grades they’re interested in getting into engineering what sort of advice or tips would you give that younger individual to really accelerate their career?
Neel: So for me, I was lucky because I was not pushed into one direction or the other. I was exposed to a lot of things. I was always like a hands-on guy says to build things. And I think there’s a lot of right now that there’s a lot of focus on. You don’t get being hands-on building stuff and I would try to have everyone just get you to know set the books aside for some time and just look at how to build things how things work to take some things apart. As an engineer, it might sound cliche almost but that’s what helped me the most. And the other thing was kind of thinking outside the box you know. I just decided, “hey, you know how the Russians went to space and did a great job, why not just try this out?” and it worked out. So a lot of times kids are afraid to do something different and thinking well what if doesn’t work out. What if it fails. So I’d say look think out of the box and don’t be afraid to you know just follow something and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If you put your heart into it it does work out. So that’s what advice I would give.
Dan F.: So the synopsis build stuff, really focuses on creativity and take some risk.
Neel: Yeah, yeah pretty much just standard advice I guess for anyone in any field not just technical. It’s a song. Yeah. Just think outside the box and now go for it. Pretty much yeah.
Dan F.: I love it. We’re definitely gonna be sharing this with a lot of our scholarship applicants. Kurz has a scholarship that we offer now every year. And equally important to be able to instill those values into anybody it’s always a nice reminder. You say it’s cliche but I don’t think a lot of people actually understand how important that that truly is. Last bit about Mersen, Neel how can people find you? How can they interact with the Mersen brand, Merson USA. You’ve got a great web presence I’ve seen you on LinkedIn, I’ve seen you on different platforms. How can people really interact for a lack of a better term intimately with the Mersen brand and get to know you guys?
Neel: Oh LinkedIn is great. I use it heavily on networking. It’s a pretty neat tool on a lot of data and analytics and all that going on in the background. Also, I think there’s an active Facebook page. We do have our French teams active on Facebook as well. Also through you guys. Kurz has been a great partner for the years and anyone who reaches out to you I’m sure the message will come back to us. And you’ve been doing phenomenally well in terms of market outreach and just even if you catch us on the field, you know we’re always available to help out send out calling for help and if need be, you know as I said we go out and we visit the farm and it’s always here to help.
Dan F.: Excellent. We’re going to include all the contact information down below as we get bigger with this podcast. We’re going to make sure that this launch is on iTunes, Spotify, & Soundcloud. So we’ll have that as a link in the show notes. I just really appreciate the time that it’s been an excellent conversation. I’ve learned a ton and I look forward to continue learning alongside Merson.
Neel: Thanks a lot Dan for having me here. It was a fun opportunity, something very new for me as well. I’m sure it’s for Merson as well, and I’m looking forward to checking out your sites.
Dan F.: Yes absolutely Neal. And we’ll see you in Houston. Thank you sir, appreciate the time.
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