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ACES profile: GridOn technology will help keep the lights on

The winner of the GE Smart Grid Award in the Science|Business Academic Enterprise Awards – presented at ETH Zurich in February - has developed technology to prevent electricity blackouts caused by lightening strikes and power surges

GridON's technology protects power grids from lightening strikes. Photo: Bigstock

GridON's Yoram Valent poses with the GE Smart Grid Award in Zurich. Photo: Oliver Bartenschlager, ETH Zurich
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Yoram Valent’s 2009 start-up, GridON, does exactly what the name says: it keeps giant electrical grids humming in spite of lightning strikes, pylon problems or other interruptions in power distribution. It claims its novel technology, based on research at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, can prevent devastating blackouts like those that hit the American northeast in 2003, and many parts of Western Europe in 2006.

Valent may well have struck gold. The UK’s Carbon Trust estimates the global market for next-generation fault current technology like GridON’s could be valued at £3 billion a year by 2012.

Founder and CEO Valent is determined to win at least 10 per cent of that growing market, and is forecasting sales over the next ten years of 2,000 units of GridOn’s new fault-current limiting system, dubbed The Keeper. The average utility company, he says, is likely to purchase more than 100 of these units over the next ten years at a cost of $1 million to $2.5 million each. Valent and his investors are betting those market dynamics could propel GridON’s revenues to $2 billion in ten years.

Powering the Grid

GridON’s innovative technology and its sizzling growth prospects, earned it the GE Smart Grid Award in the 2011 ACES competition. The company was also among the five winners in the initial round of GE’s global “ecomagination Challenge: Powering the Grid”. That placing earned the company $100,000 to fund further development of its power surge technology.

While most of the 2011 ACES Award start-ups were formed by researchers who wanted to commercialise their ideas, Valent, a seasoned entrepreneur, went looking for technology that he could take from the laboratory to market.

With two fellow entrepreneurs, Roy Iscovitsch and Matty Vengerik, he trawled through the impressive research portfolio at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. What caught their attention was multi-disciplinary work at Bar-Ilan’s National Lab for Magnetic Measurements and the Department of Physics conducted by Yosi Yeshurun, Shuki Wolfus, Alex Friedman and Vladimir Rozenshtein, who is now GridON’s chief scientist.

The academics, working with Ricor Ltd., a leading manufacturer of cryogenic systems based in Israel, had devised a new approach to a challenge that plagues electricity distribution – how to prevent the power network from shutting itself down when something like a lightning bolt sends a surge through the system.

Smoothing out unanticipated surges

The university team developed and patented a new technology that can be incorporated into fault current limiters, the large “switches” that sit in power grids. The Keeper instantly detects and smoothes out unanticipated electrical surges.

GridON says its system is “virtually transparent to the grid during normal operation.” But when there is a surge in current, The Keeper, “instantaneously turns itself into a very high impedance device,” limiting the current a manageable level.

The technology is based on standard transformer technology and materials and uses well-known manufacturing processes. This makes for a cost-effective and very reliable alternative to fault current limiters, which depend on high temperature superconductivity (HTS) and cryogenic refrigerating systems.

Several large companies have developed HTS fault current limiters over the years but the technology has not progressed beyond the demonstration stage. GridON’s experience led it to go in another direction, adopting more conventional magnetic saturated core based technology, using ordinary copper coils. As a result it says it can deliver, “unmatched control of fault currents on distribution and high voltage transmission grids.”

Connecting renewable energy sources

The ACES judges noted this level of control is important because when electricity grids operate close to capacity, intermittent flows can shut down the entire system, resulting in blackouts.

GridON also emphasises the simplicity of its technology, which it says can be integrated into existing networks, without having to change the architecture. Alongside increasing the resilience of existing infrastructure, the company has its eyes on the increasingly important market of connecting renewable energy sources to the grid.

Wind turbines, for example, increase prospective short-circuit current levels to which the grid is exposed, and produce variable amounts of electricity, which can cause the current on the grid to fluctuate, something that The Keeper can smooth out. In addition, says Valent, GridON’s technology can make an important contribution to the development of smart grids that have inbuilt software to enable them to adapt and respond to changing power demand and supply.

However, Valent acknowledges GridON faces a challenge in trying to break into the inherently conservative global electricity distribution market. The company is working with a leading manufacturer, Wilson Transformer Company of Australia to do this. And Valent has a pretty good marketing message. “Our uniqueness is about the [technology’s] simplicity”, he says. “And the fact that it works.”

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Related subjects: ACES, Smart grid