Thursday, August 21, 2003

The Springfield Syndrome

HomerA friend told me last weekend that they will probably find a Homer Simpson asleep at the job at a power plant somewhere in Ohio, and blame him for bringing eight states to their knees. We laughed at the time, but as I learn more about the way the power grid operates, my conviction turns stronger that "The Simpsons" is more documentary than comedy.

A reporter for a tech magazine and Web site (I'll link to it after it appears) called me yesterday, asking me to elaborate on my previous posts about how small tech could help prevent future massive blackouts. I said that microscale technology being tested now, and nanotechnology being proposed, will make up for three key deficits in the current system: Brains, brawn and local control.

New Scientist recently ran an informative piece that re-created the likely sequence of events and also explained where those three elements probably failed last week:

Brains: The reporter I talked to yesterday was as surprised as I was to learn how much the system is dependent on human beings just paying attention on the job. "There are no automatic systems to handle major disturbances," power systems security expert Daniel Kirschen told the New Scientist. "It is done manually by human operators, so the question is did they try to take the necessary action to avoid the outage." The solution? Take humans out of the equation as much as possible. Micron-scale acoustic sensors can listen for trouble on the grid, and then rouse Homer from his doughnut reverie to alert him, or simply take matters into its own tiny hands and shut down the system before the dominoes tumble out of control.

Brawn: "The power network was heavily loaded across the region that day because of high demand, and so there was no room to divert the power supply safely elsewhere," New Scientist reported. That's where Rick Smalley's quantum wires can come in. The nanotube fibers conduct electricity like copper, but are far lighter, so the grid's muscle power can increase in the same amount of space.

Local control: An often-repeated nanotech campaign promise is the micro fuel cell in every garage, powering your car, your house, your life. Then, when your power supply is finished thinking locally, there will be enough juice left over to act globally and sending the excess energy into other networks that need it.

All this, in a tiny microchip wafer. Mmmmmm … microchip waaafferrrs …


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