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very little relationship to how the Ballistic Breaker works.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

My "Startup Pivot" from elpipes to Ballistic Breaker

My inter-related inventions on high capacity HVDC transmission are key enablers for a supergrid. And a supergrid is the key to developing an energy economy based on aggregating numerous non-dispatchable generation resources (wind, solar, tidal). Both inventions (elpipes and Ballistic Breakers) are simple and seem obvious once you hear of them, yet both are revolutionary innovations. These innovations could make it practical to share hundreds of gigawatts (GW) of power across Europe, Asia, or North America, for example (this is the order of magnitude of new transmission needed to create a renewable energy economy), and that vision motivated me to pursue elpipes starting in 2008, after Obama's election victory.

Elpipes combine a pair of pipelines similar to gas pipelines with high capacity power lines that can move inside the pipes with features of a train. An elpipe is a very heavy high voltage DC (HVDC) power line that can carry more power than any overhead power line, with lower transmission loss. To do this, elpipes use more than 10 times as much conductor as the largest overhead lines; an elpipe is made up of heavy rigid conductors that are effectively the rail cars of an elpipe train. The elpipe train can run on conventional rails, or it can be designed to run inside a pipeline. An elpipe train could be thousands of kilometers long, yet the entire elpipe train would be fabricated at one location, then rolled into the conduit like a very long, low speed electric train. This method of installation splits the project into three parts: building the conduit, which is either a rail line or a gas pipeline; fabrication of the “elpipe cars” in a factory process; and assembly of the “elpipe cars” into a train at one single point of assembly (in a clean room environment, with sophisticated quality control inspection equipment deployed). This is very good for both cost of the elpipe and for reliability of the splices. Read more about elpipes at; I pursued elpipes for two years, and everyone with money said it is "too big, too long term" for venture funding. I came close to a deal with ABB to pursue elpipes in a strategic partnership in September 2010, but that was blocked by one ABB senior executive, Willi Paul. Shortly after this, I invented the Ballistic Breaker; this invention woke me up at 3:30 AM October 2, 2010. I have continued to work on my big dream of elpipes, though my focus is now on Ballistic Breakers.

The other missing piece of the puzzle for enabling a supergrid besides a high capacity underground conductor (elpipes) is a very high capacity low cost circuit breaker for HVDC power. The power electronic HVDC circuit breakers being offered by ABB are too expensive and too lossy to work at the scale needed in development of a supergrid. Ballistic Breakers are my second surprisingly simple innovation: these devices enable DC circuit breakers to be developed at any voltage and power level (they get bigger as power level goes up). Although I invented Ballistic Breakers for HVDC, they have an immediate market in medium voltage DC; in fact, Ballistic Breakers are key enablers for DC grids at all size scales, from vehicles to data centers to microgrids to the supergrid. So I have made the classic "startup pivot" and am now pursuing MVDC Ballistic Breakers with initial market: big motors.

I am also quite interested in applying Ballistic Breakers to DC data centers, which are growing rapidly. In this application, the low switching transients of Ballistic Breakers is especially important. For most data center installations, the desirable voltage level is only 380 volts. This low voltage implies a lot of amps (2632 amps/MW), which also is an opening for elpipes, since some data centers consume as much as 300 MW. In this application, a very high ampacity low voltage elpipe could be part of the data center power delivery system.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tesla was on track to invent the Ballistic Breaker

Nikola Tesla is one of my heroes, though I hope to have more business sense than him. When I was writing my US patent application on Ballistic Breakers (*here is an excerpt) it worried me greatly that there might be some very old prior art (which is impossible to find in an online patent search). On a whim, realizing that Tesla was brilliant, I decided to browse through Tesla's 111 US patents on the odd chance that one of his patents might be relevant. In fact, Tesla's US Patent 382,845 is one of the closest prior art patents, and creates a link between my work and one of the great pioneers in electricity.

The story behind US patent 382,845 is truly interesting, and I only know part of it. Tesla came over to the US at Thomas Edison's invitation, and agreed to Edison's proposal that he work on a bounty basis (I got this from a Tesla biography). Edison wanted Tesla to figure out how to stop the commutators of DC motors and/or generators from sparking, and offered him (verbally) a $50,000 bounty if he could succeed. The resultant US patent 382,845 is the only one of Tesla's patents that deals with DC power at all. Edison never paid the bounty which led to Tesla breaking off the relationship and becoming Edison's sworn rival. This patent reveals a remarkably simple way to suppress the commutator arcing, which I also use in the Ballistic Breaker: just behind the conductive brush that makes contact with the rotating commutator is an insulating material (a mica board) that is in contact with the conductive brush, and is squeezed against the commutator as well. This leaves no room for the spark in effect, and arcing is suppressed; a remarkably simple and effective solution. Tesla's patent is remarkable in another way: it is the only patent I have ever seen that is half assigned (to Charles F. Peck); I assume that there is an interesting story behind that as well.

I believe that if egoic considerations had not gotten in the way, Edison and Tesla might have continued to work together. Had that happened, I believe Tesla would have invented the commutating circuit breaker 120 years ago. This was one of the next problems that needed to be solved to make wide area DC power transmission & distribution practical. Instead, Tesla never looked back at DC power and his inventions ushered in the age of AC. DC power equipment quickly became a backwater technology, and there was little innovation until the modern age of HVDC and DC microgrids. By that time vacuum tubes and transistors had been invented, and recent work on DC circuit breakers has mostly used these innovations. My invention Ballistic Breakers goes back to basics and picks up a thread of innovation that was abandoned by Tesla long ago.