Nanotechnology set to revolutionize smart grid evolution

Kathleen Wolf Davis | Jan 31, 2013

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The definition of nanotechnology is simple: It’s merely technology that manipulates matter at the atomic level. When I think of nanotechnology, however, I often picture the complicated, such as a tidal wave of the tiniest of robots doing the greatest of medical work: repairing organs, binding skin.

In essence, I envision a Philip K. Dick science fiction world of nano. The truth is, though, nanotechnology is already hard at work inside paints (known as wet nano for its use of water) and even the technology of our smart grid industry (known as dry nano for its use of structures).

“Nanotech is a platform,” said Dr. Pradeep Haldar, vice president for clean energy programs with the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering with the University of Albany (UAlbany CNSE). “It’s not single product or process. With the help of nano, we can make technology better and cheaper. We can make electronic devices along the smart grid smarter.”

A driver in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s economic development blueprint in New York, UAlbany CNSE is dedicated to education, research, development and deployment in the emerging disciplines of nanoscience, nanoengineering, nanobioscience and nanoeconomics.

The college’s Albany NanoTech Complex is an 800,000-square-foot megaplex.  CNSE and over 300 corporate partners employ more than 2,700 working scientists, researchers, engineers, students and faculty on site, with an additional 1,000 to be enabled by a planned expansion.

Dr. Haldar views power electronics (tech widgets along the lines, in substations and control centers) as the main area of the smart grid where nanotechnology can make a serious impact, creating devices that are faster and cheaper and enabling those devices to be used in a lot more places and with a lot more flexibility.

In the last few years, the nano focus in our industry has rested on cables, both the ones worked from carbon nanotubes that are on the long distance horizon, superconducting cables that are less than 10 years out and conventional aluminum or copper cables with nano composites.

But, there’s more to the nano story than cables, as Dr. Haldar noted, including semiconductor devices, transistors and sensors that benefit from nanotechnology especially in size and speed (how fast you can turn them on and off). Dr. Haldar points to sensors as a turnkey.

“If a utility can measure the current/voltage going through the sensor and network that information back to the control center quickly for use with monitoring and routing, this is a critical upgrade,” he said.

Of course, hyped up nanotech sensors could be used in other ways for the smart grid as well: to measure underground cables and how they degrade or to bring down the price of chemical sensors already available for transformers.
“You want these sensors to be widespread, giving you more information.

There are algorithms which still need to be worked out, but nanotech sensors will be readily available in five or ten years time,” he added.

But, will traditionally risk-adverse utilities adopt them?

Dr. Haldar thinks so. While he understands why a utility is traditionally very cautious with updates, upgrades and new options, he believes that nanotech-infused power electronics will overcome that caution because they will be so very useful. In other words, the technology itself will sell the idea.

“Those nanotech sensors with the ability to detect issues ahead of time will convince utilities. Bottom line,” he said, adding that scientists aren’t developing nanotechnology for the sheer joy of scientific discovery, that it does provide unique characteristics and unique functionality. 

Dr. Haldar advises utilities to keep eyes on the areas of nanotechnology that can bring them the most benefits, tracking the impacts of items, such as cables, that already incorporate nanotech upgrades.

“You need everything in unison,” he added. “You need the sensors and the wires and the intelligence in the power electronics. The nanotechnology enables all of this to happen. Without nanotechnology, none of this happens. Without nanotechnology, you don’t have anything small enough, fast enough or cheap enough for the smart grid to fully evolve. Nanotechnology is coming to a utility near you. It’s just a matter of time.”

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