Why a 19th-century invention is back at the frontier of science
It’s been said that the power network is all that Thomas Edison would recognize if he came back today, so little has it changed since the 19th century.
And why change it anyway, you might say, since it serves our needs so well? Power grids must be perfectly good as they are, since they supply hundreds of millions of people around the world with all the electricity they need at any time of day.
You’d be right, of course, if it weren’t for the need to use much more power from renewable sources such as the sun and wind. These sources don’t always provide electricity when it’s needed, requiring power networks to do previously impossible things such as store surplus electricity and adjust demand to the available supply, for instance by temporarily switching off non-essential household appliances, to name just a few.
In other words, power grids are rapidly evolving and becoming smarter as societies grapple with the twin challenges of maintaining reliable and affordable energy supplies while reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.
News that the MIT Technology Review has named an electrical engineering innovation as one of the top 10 breakthroughs of the year is further confirmation that power grids are back at the cutting edge of science, more than 130 years after Edison’s pioneering work in electrification.
The innovation in question is a hybrid HVDC circuit breaker capable of interrupting power flows equivalent to the output of a large power station within 5 milliseconds. This solution is crucial to the development of power grids that remain efficient, safe and reliable while being fed by a variety of different energy sources.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology publication named the breaker alongside innovations in nanotechnology, pre-natal DNA sequencing, social media and artificial intelligence, as one of the 10 technological breakthroughs with the potential to “expand the scope of human possibilities.”
The reference to an electrical engineering achievement in the same breath as genetic and software engineering shows that the field of electricity has an exciting time ahead.
Edison, if you want to recognize anything at all down here, you’d better come back soon.