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electricity-4Israeli know-how is powering computer networks, security systems, cellphones, and computers, to name but a few items – and now, that same know-how may soon be helping to protect the “juice” that makes those items work. An Israeli startup called GridOn Systems is marketing a technology developed at Bar Ilan University to regulate electrical networks, preventing shorts and other problems – thus stabilizing the electrical grid, and protecting our refrigerators, washing machines, TV sets, computers, and any other item that gets plugged into the wall. And the technology is so good that it recently won $100,000 in a General Electric innovation contest, one of only five of hundreds of entries worldwide to attain that recognition.

“Everyone knows that an electrical short means big trouble,” says Dr. Shuki Wolfus of the Bar Ilan University Physics Department, who along with his colleagues Dr. Alex Friedman and Professor Yosef Yeshurun, developed the technology, in cooperation with a company called Ricor, in Ein Harod. “When you have a hose that leaks water, you get a concentration of water at the hole, and a lowering of pressure further down. The same is true for electricity; a short is like a ‘hole’ in the wire, but in this case, it is a dangerous hole that conducts power – excess power – into your appliances, ruining them,” he says.

When you get a short at home, your breaker system, which regulates the flow of power, is supposed to kick in and stop the power from flowing and damaging appliances. But what works on a small scale at home gets more and more difficult on bigger systems; and on big electrical grids, regulating electricity to prevent shorts is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and extremely expensive when it is possible. Such “shorts” on a major electrical system could be responsible for all sorts of mischief – like the cascading blackout that affected some 50 million people on the U.S. east coast and parts of Canada. In that blackout, by the way, the power outage, investigators found, was caused by an electricity wire coming into contact with “untrimmed trees” (!), showcasing just how easy it can be for large grids to fail – and how much they need regulation to prevent overloading.

And that is exactly what the technology developed by Dr. Wolfus and his colleagues does. “Our device – a small, compact, electrical core (which is marketed by GridOn under the name “The Keeper”) varies the flow of electricity if a change in current strength is detected. When the current is too strong, our device, which is based on magnet technology, is able to slow the flow of power. The result is that breakers and other equipment on the line do not get overwhelmed and are far less likely to short out, as they often do because they are often not rated for the excess current they have to deal with.” In fact, says Dr. Wolfus, the technology could be implemented to ensure that the electricity flow does not outstrip the capabilities of the grid’s equipment – thus ensuring that it doesn’t suffer “burnout,” literally.

This system, says Dr. Wolfus, solves a number of problems inherent in the solutions widely used today to avoid excess power flows and the effects of shorts. “Today, when there is excess flow due to a short, power companies often direct some of the power into other lines, but this is problematic, because it violates the stability of the flow, which could cause problems on grid or even home equipment,” says Dr. Wolfus. “Our solution is flexible. When our core is installed on a line, it automatically regulates the flow at its correct power, ensuring that the flow remains stable. It limits the current for as long as required to clear the fault, and recovers immediately thereafter.”

The Keeper itself, says GridOn, is very compact. It comprises 3-phase AC coils wound around a single, fully saturated, iron core. Not only does it suppress fault currents on grids, but it also allows for current regulation and reactive power balancing. The Keeper, virtually transparent to the grid during normal operation, instantaneously turns itself into a very high impedance device upon a current surge. “It’s compactness, and the fact that it can use standard copper coil, and does not require superconducter coil, makes it attractive to GE and many utility companies,” said Dr. Wolfus. GridOn has been talking to a number of companies, says Dr. Wolfus, and is set to install some Keepers in a major European electricity network.

As mentioned, the technology was mostly developed by Dr. Wolfus’ team. It was transferred to Bar Ilan’s research and development company (headed by Gabi Keinan) which licensed it to GridOn. “We believe that this solution is better and cheaper than any of the others on the market,” says Dr. Wolfus. “Sooner or later, all electrical grids are going to realize that they need a logical solution to the problem of regulating electrical current on large grids – and we believe they are going to prefer our solution.”

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