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A Material Solution to Keeping the Lights On

Posted on: 04/18/2013
Technology developed by engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas has been shown to regulate or limit the amount of excess current that moves through the power grid when a surge occurs. When deployed, it could potential mitigate the extent and equipment damage caused by wide-spread electrical blackouts.

The equipment uses a silicon-carbide semiconductor device and technology. Said the researchers in a university press release, “The significance of this material cannot be overestimated. It is much more durable and responds so much faster than materials currently used in systems on the U.S. power grid.”

Silicon-carbide has other benefits as well. Its properties allow for extremely high voltage, and it is a good thermal conductor, which means that it can operate at high temperatures without requiring extra equipment to remove heat. Overall, use of the material will reduce the mass and volume of equipment needed on a power grid.

A fault current, also known as a surge, occurs when too much current flows through the electrical power grid in an uncontrolled manner. A fault current is typically caused by an accident or unintended event, such as lightning or contact between power lines and trees. These events cause short-circuits, which result in a rapid increase in the electricity drawn from power sources within the grid. When these sources do not have extra power to give, cascading or rolling blackouts can occur.

A fault current limiter can be thought of as a giant surge protector. When excess current travels through a power line, the limiter absorbs it and then sends only what is necessary farther down the line, ensuring uninterrupted service.

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