Melbourne researchers have invented and patented a way of detecting and locating potential electrical faults along large stretches of power line before they occur.
The invention was inspired by a boyhood interest in electric fishes, such as the black ghost knifefish.
The patented detection system, already being employed by local electricity companies, could help prevent the major discharges that lead to sparking and blackouts, says Dr Alexe Bojovschi, a post-doctoral fellow in electrical and computer engineering at RMIT University.
"Internationally, this is very important. Last year, blackouts left 620 million people in India without power for a couple of days and cost the US economy more than US$120 billion. Electric sparking has been blamed for major bushfires in Australia."
Alexe is one of 12 early-career scientists unveiling their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Australian Government through the Inspiring Australia initiative.
He says he got the idea on how the electromagnetic signatures of potential faults could travel in the power networks from the ability of electric fishes to transmit and receive electromagnetic radiation.
Our power networks, many of which were built at least 50 years ago, are ageing and deteriorating just at the time when they are being overloaded with new appliances, Alexe says. "All it takes is a salt deposit or a build-up of lichen to provide a conductive path on an insulator, and you enhance the likelihood of electrical discharges."
The patented wireless sensing technology can be mounted to the power poles to detect the discharge signature in the power network. The sensors can be used to locate the fault point by translating the time of arrival of the signature into a measure of distance.
Alexe and his project managers Associate Professors Alan Wong and Wayne Rowe have established a company, IND Technology, to commercialise the system.
At present, IND Technology is offering the technology as an early-fault-detection service to electricity companies in Victoria online 24 hours a day. "The system provides a dynamic picture of the health of their power networks," Alexe says. "But this is a worldwide issue, so the company has the potential to expand globally."
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