BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As electric power this week returned to the
last of the homes and businesses in Western New York affected by
the devastating October snowstorm, researchers at the University at
Buffalo were discussing how tiny, nanoscale sensors could make
power systems far more resilient.
Engineers with UB's Energy Systems Institute, one of the
nation's few academic research centers that studies the
fundamentals of electric power, have for the past year been
considering how nanoelectronics could dramatically shorten, or in
some cases eliminate, crippling power outages.
"Until now, we've had to do everything with wires and that makes
it very expensive," said W. James Sarjeant, Ph.D., James Clerk
Maxwell Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering at UB and
director of the institute.
"What we're proposing is to use wireless communications, by
embedding tiny sensors at every point in the system," he said. "The
nanosensors would then send in real-time a signal to a centralized
computer using wireless communications. It would monitor the power
coming to every home or business in the system at every instant in
Such an embedded, low-cost, self-powered system would provide
integrated prognostic and diagnostic capabilities, detecting
problems and in some cases prescribing solutions, thus greatly
expediting the time it would take to prevent cascading effects.
According to Sarjeant, one of the factors contributing to the
enormous investment of time needed to get all of the 390,000
customers back online last week was that the utilities needed to
send crews street-by-street just to identify the problems in the
"The utilities had no way of knowing what happened at specific
locations," he said, "whether it was a wire down, or a transformer
that had blown up.
"Wireless sensors, on the other hand, could give you a very
low-cost way to monitor the health, quality and safety of every
element in the system, without having to dispatch a crew to
investigate," he said.
Since the information transmitted from sensors could instantly
indicate to a central computer the
nature of a problem, the utility would know immediately whether
it needed to send a truck out or simply inform the property owner
that a main circuit breaker had tripped.
The wireless sensors also could be used in sump pumps, Sarjeant
said, creating a kind of "smart house" that could detect and report
malfunctions in its systems before a catastrophic failure
For electric power applications, such a capability would be
nothing short of a revolution, Sarjeant said.
"This could change the way electricity is managed from a safety
point of view," he said.
A key advantage of the wireless sensor system is that because
nanoscale sensors are by definition very small and use low power,
they could be designed into power components or retrofitted at a
minimal cost, according to the UB scientists.
Sarjeant noted that such a system would be a far more efficient,
cost-effective way to modernize the power grid than replacing
components after they fail.
He and his colleagues in the department of electrical
engineering and others in the UB departments of civil, structural
and environmental engineering and mechanical engineering have
developed a multidisciplinary team with expertise in
nanoelectronics, sensors, power systems and networking to tackle
Unfortunately, Sarjeant noted, funding for electrical power
research has dwindled substantially over the past few decades.
While that may not make sense to Buffalo home- and business
owners, whose lives still may not be back to normal after last
week's storm, the reality is that there is currently very little
federally or industry-funded research on enhancing power systems,
The UB engineers currently are seeking funding for their
The UB multidisciplinary team in the School of Engineering and
Applied Sciences is pursuing the power systems research as part of
UB's 2020 strategic strength initiative in integrated
nanostructured systems. The goal is to improve the response of
power systems during catastrophic or extreme events.
In addition to Sarjeant, the team includes Jennifer Zirnheld,
Ph.D., adjunct lecturer in electrical engineering and deputy
director of UB's Energy Systems Institute; Jonathan Bird, Ph.D.,
Alexander Cartwright, Ph.D., and Albert Titus, Ph.D., professors of
electrical engineering; Vladimir Mitin, Ph.D., professor and chair
of electrical engineering; and Cemal Basaran, Ph.D., professor of
civil, structural and environmental engineering.