Recent rolling power outages and power failures over the past few years have highlighted just how vulnerable our power grid is to disaster. The White House just announced a $250 million loan bonanza for major smart grid deployment, but a 4-millimeter-thick chip that costs just a few dollars may actually be the key to ensuring that our aging power grid infrastructure doesn't die on us.
The chip, developed by a team from Switzerland's EPFL Electronics Laboratory (ELab) and backed financially by ABB, can reportedly manage defects on a power grid network—i.e. generator problems, power cuts, power line failures—a thousand times faster than current software. The whole thing is so fast that it can model thousands of failure scenarios and figure out the best solutions before they happen. So in the event of a hot day where everyone is using their air conditioners, stretching the network to the brink, the chip can quickly figure out what to do to prevent a sudden power failure.
ELab's chip could also easily integrate grid-connected renewable energy sources, which will become increasingly common over the next decade. When renewables are available—which isn't all the time—the chip can automatically prioritize them. "Apart from the increased speed, a further advantage will be an easier use of renewable energy sources that depend on climatic conditions, and therefore are non-programmable, in comparison with nuclear energy power stations, which require advance planning," says Maher Kayal of ELab in a statement.
The power-grid-on-a-chip isn't quite ready for commercialization; researchers are putting the finishing touches on the technology. But the first full-scale trials may be ready to go in the United Arab Emirates by next year, and commercialization could happen within the next five years.