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Wireless sensors to monitor power grids

After a major power outage, the utility companies have to dispatch electricians all over the place to discover the cause of the power failure or simply to restore power. Engineers at the University of Buffalo think they have a better solution: deploy wireless nanotech sensors to monitor the networks and to find the exact location of a failure.
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Written by Roland Piquepaille, Inactive on

Major power outages like the ones which affected the New York state last month or Western Europe ten days ago are becoming more frequent -- even if their causes were different. In some cases, the utility companies have to dispatch electricians all over the place to discover the cause of the power failure or simply to restore power. Engineers at the University of Buffalo (UB) think they have a better solution: deploy wireless 'nanotech' sensors to monitor the networks and to find the exact location of a failure. They also say that even if the technology is almost available, several years of research are necessary before such a solution can be used by electrical companies. But read more...

The multidisciplinary team of UB engineers is working on this idea for a while. But the October's storm which affected parts of New York state in October pushed them to publicize it. Here is how The Spectrum describes the problem.

In the recent storm, electrical crews had to go street-by-street looking for the location of the several problems causing power outages -- such as a downed line or damaged power box, while many lived without electricity for days.
Sending out crews for repair is costly in both time and money, and researchers say that with the new sensors they would be able to pinpoint the problem and isolate it much faster than before.

In a previous UB news release, "Wireless Nanotech Sensors Could Monitor Power Systems 24/7," W. J. Sarjeant, director of the Energy Systems Institute, explains how such a wireless sensor network would work.

"What we're proposing is to use wireless communications, by embedding tiny sensors at every point in the system," he said. "The nanosensors would then send in real-time a signal to a centralized computer using wireless communications. It would monitor the power coming to every home or business in the system at every instant in time."

In The Spectrum, Albert Titus, an electrical engineering professor, adds that "there are many possibilities for a technology able to detect natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes, keeping people across the county more aware of their surroundings."

An additional advantage of such a system is that it "would be a far more efficient, cost-effective way to modernize the power grid than replacing components after they fail," according to Sarjeant.

So why are such wireless sensors not in place today?

Cemal Basaran, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, is another researcher on the project. He said that researchers have the technology to implement the sensors, but there are other obstacles that still need to be overcome. "You need funding and political power," Basaran said.

And Sarjeant added that "the necessary research must be completed, four to five years, at (a cost of) five to six million dollars per annum here at UB."

If you consider that any major failure costs much more $30 million, it's hard to understand why these researchers don't find funding for their research. They might consider to remove the 'nanotech' part from their proposal: after all, they are thinking of small sensors, not nanosensors...

Sources: Melanie Pellegrino, The Spectrum, University of Buffalo, November 8, 2006; and various websites

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