Protecting a powered-up tomorrow

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  Posted by: electime      10th July 2019

By James O’Brien, Product Group Director, M&I Materials

The world is electrifying at a rapid pace. Whether it’s a developing country delivering power to underserved communities for the first time, or the era of the internal combustion engine (ICE) giving way to electric vehicles (EVs), tomorrow is powering up. Even industries that are already significantly electrified, such as rail, look to energy-intensive technologies such as maglev or hyperloop for their next great leap forward.

But tomorrow’s high-energy technology can only become today’s if we can guarantee safety and performance, protecting both assets and people. New technologies will throw up new challenges for us to solve.

For example, consider an EV crash. Emergency services responding to an ICE car crash today have well-established methods and tools for the scenario. However, EVs create a new risk to manage: potentially up to 800V buzzing around the chassis if the battery has been damaged.

Of course, petrol-powered engines have their own risks, and there’s no reason to say EVs are inherently more dangerous, but to safely intervene without risk of electrocution or causing a fire, responders need a way to safely discharge the battery. And they need to do so quickly.

One technology that shows promise is the silicon carbide non-linear resistor (varistor), such as those made by Metrosil. Metrosil silicon carbide varistors have extremely high energy and power capacity and have been used for decades for surge protection in some of the world’s largest power plants and various high-energy industries. In other words, Metrosil varistors are capable of high energy absorption and superfast discharge.

Equipment using this technology could in theory be used to quickly discharge the battery, enabling emergency services to immediately continue with safety. There of course remains research to be done and technical challenges to overcome, but it’s a promising place to start.

If successful, it’s an approach that could be replicated across tomorrow’s battery-enabled energy landscape. Imagine a fire at a commercial building or apartment block with a battery in the basement – or even at a single house with a domestic battery mounted on the wall. Given lithium-ion batteries’ high fire risk, it could similarly be a top priority for fire services to discharge the battery before it can be ignited.

Even in non-emergency scenarios there could be needs for rapidly discharging batteries. Grid-scale batteries are a good example. It may be necessary to discharge the battery to enable engineers to safely work on adjacent equipment, or in the event of a fault in the system so as not to damage the battery.

However, while batteries are an obvious example, they are far from the only form tomorrow’s high energy world might take. Many dreamers are excited about the widespread adoption of maglev (magnetic levitation) trains, capable of incredible speed improvements versus conventional rail, as well as lower maintenance requirements, noise and vibration. There are still many barriers to widespread maglev uptake, one being the extremely high-power demands, as the levitation is produced by large amounts of energy pushed into the magnet – the sweet spot for silicon carbide non-linear resistors.

The other technology fuelling hopes for transport futurists is the hyperloop, most famously under development by Elon Musk’s Boring Company. Musk’s concept relies on creating a partial vacuum to eliminate air resistance and achieve immense speeds, while other approaches such as that taken by Virgin’s Hyperloop One incorporate maglev technology too. Either way, large power requirements create a clear need for surge protection.

So, what does tomorrow hold? Hopefully some truly transformative innovations in how we transport people and goods, and balance the demands of our electricity networks. To make these prospects reality however, we need to pay serious attention to how we will protect people close to these new assets, as well as the infrastructure itself. But it’s not a matter of waiting on some new enabling innovation: with a history in non-linear resistors stretching back to 1936, Metrosil may already have the properties today to solve the problems of tomorrow.