Power generation creates megawatts of power, but transmission and distribution lines can siphon off kilowatts during the routing of that power to users. Superconducting wires can be used to transmit megawatts of electricity with virtually no resistance on the first leg of its journey between power stations, but when sending high-voltage transmissions from power stations to users, a significant portion can be lost to the environment due to weaknesses in conventional insulators. Now IBM Research (Zurich), in collaboration with ABB Corporate Research Center, is using supercomputers to design superinsulators that remedy the problem with self-healing.
Energy-efficient power cables using high-temperature superconductor (HTS) wire from American Superconductor (foreground) will soon be joined by superinsulators to mitigate power losses during transmission and distribution (T&D).
ABB--named for the first letters in the two companies that were merged to form it, Swedish corporation Allmanna Svenska Elektriska Aktiebolaget and the Swiss company Brown, Boveri & Cie--is now the world's largest builder of electricity grids, with over 124,000 employees in 100 countries and revenue of nearly $32 billion. ABB ranks 143th in the Fortune 500 listing of the world's largest and most successful companies, and its corporate research labs are near IBM's research labs in the Zurich area.
IBM Research scientists Alex Mueller and Georg Bednorz were recognized with the Nobel Prize for Physics for their seminal work leading to superconducting wires. Now IBM hopes to make a similar contribution in the field of superinsulators, together with ABB. Using supercomputers to test alternative formulations, these new superinsulators for high-voltage conventional power lines aim to eliminate the significant losses in-current worldwide as electricity is shuttled from power stations during transmission and distribution (T&D) to residential and industrial users.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, up to 7 percent of electrical energy is lost during transmission and distribution. IBM and ABB scientists reasoned that these losses were due to materials factors, such as deterioration of insulators after they are exposed to harsh weather conditions. Both underground and overhead power lines use insulators to prevent electricity from bleeding off, but aging and other environmental factors--including humidity, high winds and pollution--conspire with weather to waste generated power. As a result, more power is generated that is used--to compensate for the losses--causing both higher-than-needed prices and even an occasional power outage that could have been prevented with more efficient power transmission materials.
To remedy that, IBM and ABB researchers have been cooperating to accurately simulate the molecular dynamics of conventional silicon rubber (polymethylhydrosiloxane, or PDMS) insulators in an effort to accurately model the physical processes that affect power lines.
The team is using IBM's Blue Gene/P--a second-generation Blue Gene supercomputer capable of running continuously at 1 petaFLOPS (1 million gigaFLOPS or floating-point operations per second)--to create ultra-high-resolution simulations that go down to the molecular level of the PDMS insulators. Simulations of up to 1 million atoms and their interactions were used to carefully characterize the material, after which alternative formulations have been tried to remedy shortcomings with self-healing that improves the superinsulator's resiliency to damage.
Based on amorphous siloxane polymers, which are hydrophobic (repel water), these superinsulators mitigate the main source of losses by self-healing tiny defects that today accumulate to cause insulators to slowly deteriorate over time.