A power grid on a chip

June 9, 2011 By Cecilia Carron, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne
© Alain Herzog 2011 EPFL

Presented during the EPFL Middle East research days, a device only 4mm thick can manage an urban power grid a thousand times faster than currently possible.

Is it really possible to manage the of a whole town on single chip? The future of will surely be a combination of several power sources, and Maher Kayal’s team from EPFL’s Electronics Laboratory (ELab) are developing a dedicated hardware that manages the network a thousand times faster than current software running on a conventional computer. The first unit of this integrated circuit has just been developed and could be deployed on the scale of a town five years from now.

Defective power lines, problems with generators, or risks of power cuts will be handled by the chip a thousand times faster than at present. This will allow their management in close to real time, and at a lower cost than existing installations. “The problem with power grids has always been that ‘fatal moment’ when there is a sudden power failure”, emphasizes Kayal. This chip will enable the anticipation of breakdowns that could occur when the network is stretched to the limit in much greater security, efficiency and speed than software coupled with hardware not developed specifically for this purpose. This increased speed will allow for modeling of thousands of possible scenarios and anticipate failures and calculate their best solutions before they even happen.

Smart Grids

“Apart from the increased speed, a further advantage will be an easier use of renewable sources that depend on climatic conditions, and therefore are non-programmable, in comparison with nuclear energy power stations, which require advance planning”, he adds.

This way of managing the network is in line with the concept of the “smart grid”: that is, the use of electronic technologies to optimize the production and distribution of electricity and thereby match demand and supply, ultimately reducing economical and ecological impact without even limiting energy consumption. However, Maher Kayal prefers not to put a figure on the financial savings: “Everything depends on the education, the intelligence and the psychology of the users of the network.” These factors will probably take longest to address and resolve.

Once in production, the should only cost a few Swiss francs, and will have the significant advantage of being both reconfigurable and programmable according to the town, the district, or any other scale of network. The company ABB, which is financing part of the research work, has now filed a patent. This new concept of the intelligent management of energy will be unveiled on June 22 and 23, during the EPFL Middle East research days, which will bring together Swiss- and Emirates-based scientists to focus on the future of energy and sustainable development.

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not rated yet Jun 10, 2011
It is kind of an year since I had a power outage for few minutes. Whatever are doing my power company are doing a great job.
If it ain't broken don't fix it.
not rated yet Jun 10, 2011
Power outages? Do they even occur anymore? Can't remember any time when we had one (certainly not in the last decade or so)
not rated yet Jun 10, 2011
It is kind of an year since I had a power outage for few minutes. Whatever are doing my power company are doing a great job.
If it ain't broken don't fix it.

What about if it's grossly inefficient and sure to fail catastrophically at some point in the not-too-distant future? By your reasoning we should still be driving Model Ts down dirt roads.

5 / 5 (1) Jun 11, 2011
The reason the model T and volksweagon bug got better gas mileage is because they did not have all the smog junk on them and is also the reason why my 1974 5600 pound chevy 350 cid V8 engine pickup gets 20 miles per gallon.
not rated yet Jun 11, 2011
Power outages? Do they even occur anymore? Can't remember any time when we had one (certainly not in the last decade or so)

That some grids haven't experienced cuts recently says nothing about the overall situation around the planet today and, more importantly, nothing about the longer-term future of energy supply and demand.

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