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 www.elpipe.com; 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.