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Smart Transformers Among Top 10 Emerging Technologies

Smart power will surely come a’runnin’ to you.

Note: This post was guest-authored by Nate DeGraff, of NC State’s College of Engineering.

The smart solid-state transformers being developed by the NSF FREEDM Systems Center at North Carolina State University have been named to MIT Technology Review’s 2011 list of the world’s 10 most important emerging technologies.

Smart transformers, which are more efficient and adaptive than transformers commonly used on the power grid today, are listed among the 10 emerging technologies that will soon have a profound impact on how we live and work. The magazine says technologies on the “TR10” list promise fundamental shifts in areas ranging from energy to healthcare to communications.

“Smart grid technology could make electrical power more reliable, and make it easier to integrate renewables such as solar and wind. The smart transformer being developed at the NSF FREEDM Systems Center at NC State University represents a major advance for smart grids, allowing the flow of electricity to be controlled and rerouted in a manner similar to how data is routed around the Internet,” said Stephen Cass, special projects editor for Technology Review. “This rapid and precise control over electrical power could balance supply and demand better, eliminate spikes, and reduce the number of power plants required, as well as make it easier to support things like residential solar installations, or large fleets of hybrid and electric vehicles.”

Today’s power grid only lets power flow in one direction — from the power company to the consumer — and the transformers on today’s grid simply transfer electrical energy from one circuit to another and transform it to a more usable voltage.

But the smart transformers under development at FREEDM are more flexible and have components that are built to handle high power levels and quickly change power voltage and frequency as they communicate with the rest of the grid. The devices could allow electric vehicles to be charged more quickly and utilities to incorporate large amounts of solar and wind power into the grid without blackouts or power surges.

“We are honored that our work has been recognized during these exciting times in the electric power systems field,” said Dr. Alex Huang, the center’s director and the Progress Energy Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NC State. “Developing smart solid-state transformers will be crucial to improving power quality and reliability for residential users and industry customers and bringing more renewable energy onto the electricity grid.”

Formed in 2008 by a five-year, $18.5 million Engineering Research Center grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems Center is headquartered at NC State and includes faculty and facilities at seven universities in the US and Europe. Its goal is to revolutionize the nation’s power grid and speed renewable energy technologies into every home and business.

Established in 1899, Technology Review is the world’s oldest technology magazine. The 2011 TR10 is featured in the May/June edition of the magazine and is posted on its website.