Transforming Power:

Modernizing the nation’s power grid to protect it from cyber attack.

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A rolling power blackout in 2003 left 50 million people in the Northeast United States and part of Canada without power for days and caused billions in lost revenue. The failure revealed the limits and vulnerabilities of the aging systems holding together the nation’s power grid.

That national crisis led to the establishment of the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission, or NCREPT as it has become known, at the University of Arkansas. Today the center works to both modernize the nation’s power grid and protect it from new threats, such as a cyberattack.

“After the 2003 blackout the federal government decided that it needed to seriously investigate modernization of the electric power grid. This, in turn, drew a focus onto the idea of replacing outdated and unreliable electro-mechanical switching devices with modern, solid-state equipment,” said Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and the center’s executive director.

A Stronger Semiconductor

“We are transforming power electronics technologies. Our work has improved the grid and other industries that rely on power electronics and will continue to have a positive impact on the world.”

- Alan Mantooth

The University of Arkansas was chosen for this national center because of an elite group of electrical engineering researchers, led by Mantooth, who were already advancing the next generation of circuits and devices with silicon carbide, a semiconducting material stronger and faster than conventional materials used on the power grid.

When silicon carbide is built into high-speed switching devices, the material enables circuits to process energy more efficiently and protect grid equipment (e.g., limit fault currents) that cause power failure. The material has other benefits, including properties that allow for extremely high voltage and the ability to operate at high temperatures.

Powerful Test Facility

The center includes the highest-powered power-electronics test facility at any university in the country and is capable of harnessing up to 6 megawatts of electricity – enough electricity to power more than 300 homes.

A recent $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy expanded the center’s mission to work on protecting the nation’s power grid from cyberattack, another vulnerability found in recent years. These efforts have focused on boosting security on core power-grid controls and communications infrastructure, as well as building security protection into components and services and providing security testing and validation.

NCREPT researchers have also developed an electrical power converter system that solves the problem of integrating new, renewable energy sources into the national power grid. The converter simultaneously accepts power from a variety of energy sources, including solar, geothermal and wind, and makes it compatible for distribution on the power grid.

“We are transforming power electronics technologies,” Mantooth said. “Our work has improved the grid and other industries that rely on power electronics and will continue to have a positive impact on the world.”

Modernizing and Protecting the Power Grid

The National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission remains a leader in developing solid-state technology to modernize and protect the nation’s power grid and a reliable resource for top industries working in the power field.

Major corporations like ABB, Siemens and S&C and other research groups that develop products for the power grid rely on NCREPT facilities to test the performance of their devices before taking them to market.

NCREPT has also spurred a few new companies, borne of U of A faculty discoveries at the center, ensuring that new devices and technology move beyond the lab and into power stations, homes and businesses.

Within NCREPT, U of A researchers, including faculty, students and the center’s staff, design and build their own devices. This research has focused on six general areas:

  • Power electronics design and modeling
  • Packaging
  • Testing
  • Design automation
  • Mixed-signal integrated circuit design
  • Sensors and controls

One of these devices is a solid-state, fault-current limiter, a device that acts as a giant surge protector when excess current moves through the power grid. The center’s design helps prevent blackouts on the grid by absorbing this excess current and sending only what is necessary farther down the line, thus lowering maintenance and operating costs.

Another project came out of a collaboration with Arkansas Power Electronics, International, a company that NCREPT faculty and staff helped launch and support. Now known as Wolfspeed after acquisition by Cree, the company worked in collaboration with Ozark Integrated Circuits to design integrated circuits that can operate at temperatures greater than 660 degrees Fahrenheit. This development improves electrical efficiency and performance while also reducing the size and complexity of systems used in power electronics. These improvements make these circuits more suited to the extreme environments found in power grid systems, electric vehicles and space travel.

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