New Technology to Trap Killer Sparks

General Electric engineers invent an arc-flash absorber that can consume 5000 amperes and trip in mere microseconds

3 min read

4 March 2009—On the morning of 14 April 2006, an engineer was working on a 480-volt disconnect switch in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, in New York, when a blinding flash of heat and light left him seriously burned. The cause, an electrical hazard called arc flash, rattled the lab and set off a chain of investigations.

The engineer was lucky to escape with just first- and second-degree burns on his face, chest, arms, and hands. Arc flash is an explosion that happens when the electrical resistance of air breaks down, connecting conductors with an arc of hot plasma. The temperature of an arc can exceed four times the surface temperature of the sun, and a 10 000 ampere arc at 480 V packs the equivalent power of about eight sticks of dynamite.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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