All posts by Neil Savage

Powering Through the Pandemic

Post Syndicated from Neil Savage original

IEEE COVID-19 coverage logo, link to landing page

Over their 140-year history, electric utilities have figured out how to deal with all sorts of calamities: floods, hurricanes, monsoons, earthquakes, ice storms, wildfires, even active shooters. But the last time they experienced something comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was 1918, and only a third of U.S. homes had electricity.

In the COVID-19 crisis, most of the utilities’ existing disaster responses were of little use. The pandemic was both geographically boundless and also long-lasting, and yet it didn’t pose any immediate threat of physical damage. Rather, the risk was something new: Grid operators worried that if huge numbers of essential workers fell ill, key pieces of infrastructure—generating plants, substations, transmission and distribution lines—could become damaged or inoperable. This was at a time when the importance of uninterrupted electrical service was paramount, because hospitals’ response to COVID-19 depended strongly on suites of medical tools. Those included ultrasound and computed tomography for diagnosis and, in the most serious cases, ventilators for treatment.

Now, as utilities that endured the first wave of outbreaks begin returning to normal operations, they are taking stock of their responses to the pandemic. Meanwhile, as new hot spots emerge, utilities that escaped the first wave are bracing for their own first encounters.

The New York Power Authority (NYPA), the state’s public utility, was one of the organizations buffeted by the first wave in the United States. In mid-March, with COVID-19 cases beginning to soar in parts of the state, NYPA found itself grappling with how to deal with the anticipated onslaught. “We were trying to find strategic ways to make sure we could isolate key staff,” recalls Joseph Keesler, chief operating officer. “One of the things that we considered was our capacity. Should the virus go into our key staff, do we have enough backups?”

Projections suggested that NYPA did, but it hoped to avoid having to find out for sure. Office workers, such as those in management, payroll, and billing, were asked to work from home. But the specialists who run NYPA’s 16 electrical generation facilities and troubleshoot the equipment could not work remotely.

So the utility began bringing beds into their plants, and even towed some dormitory-type trailers to work sites, so key workers could comfortably remain on-site around the clock. After several weeks, NYPA rotated them out and replaced them with a second shift. “Sequestering is one method of social distancing that was helpful for us in terms of making sure our essential personnel were safe,” Keesler says. He himself directed operations from a makeshift office in his home.

The measures managed to keep critical personnel free of infection. As of the end of May, the utility was winding down the sequestration plan, but it remains vigilant and ready to return to that plan, or take new steps should cases of the virus begin to spike again.

In devising their responses to the pandemic, NYPA and other U.S. utilities called upon their experiences during two previous outbreaks, the bird flu of 2005 and the swine flu of 2009, according to Keesler. But COVID-19 spread further and faster than either of those, and it had unique attributes, such as a much higher degree of spread by infected but asymptomatic people. That meant the electricity sector had to adapt existing guidelines to account for the realities of the specific disease, not just for its own sake but for the sake of the countless medical workers and patients depending on a fully functional electricity grid. “Frontline hospital workers and ventilators and first responders don’t work without electricity,” notes Scott Aaronson, vice president for security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, the association representing U.S. investor-owned utility companies.

The industry is now compiling its experiences on how to deal with COVID-19, Aaronson adds. “We are literally writing a book,” he says. “We have crowdsourced from hundreds of experts all across the sector.” He’s referring to a resource guide for dealing with COVID-19 from the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, a group made up of utility executives. “It started as a 6-page document, sort of a pamphlet,” Aaronson adds. “It’s 112 pages today.” 

The guide contains recommendations for pandemic-related issues faced by utilities, such as how to identify which personnel are critical, how to practice social distancing in the tight confines of a control facility, how to clean and disinfect control rooms, and how to prepare for difficulties in getting critical equipment.

Another concern is how to handle situations that require mutual aid. Utilities often help each other out during emergencies—for instance, sending repair crews to help with downed power lines after a storm. But that presents challenges when people from different regions are not supposed to be mingling. So the industry developed COVID-19 protocols for mutual aid, which include limiting the times when two people are in a bucket at the top of a pole and restricting personnel to one person per vehicle or per hotel room. Utilities put those protocols into practice in early April, when tornadoes from eastern Texas to the mid-Atlantic region left 1.5 million people without power, and they worked well, Aaronson says. “Some of these protocols are going to be used even after the pandemic,” he says.

Keesler says utilities have also agreed to expand the concept of mutual aid to include the sharing of control-room personnel, if the virus renders key members of one company’s workforce unable to work.

NYPA has also been benefiting from efforts, dating back to 2013, to digitize more of its operations. Under the initiative, the utility built up its information-technology infrastructure, installed remote sensors throughout its generating plants, and provided more handheld instruments to employees. The organization also benefited from prior experimentation with a couple of other technologies. “Drone operation for routine inspections or 3D modeling and 3D printing are things that were novelties but became essentials during this crisis,” Keesler says. He explains that NYPA used 3D modeling to examine its infrastructure and 3D printing to test potential replacement parts, which the utility would then machine with more standard tools.

In the future, NYPA may manufacture those parts with 3D printers, Keesler says. During the pandemic, it even used 3D printing to create plastic face shields for its workers and others. “I think going forward, we’re actually going to double down on all of our digital strategy to make sure that we can respond to the next crisis,” he adds.

Power companies were also forced to confront supply-chain problems during the pandemic. Utilities generally carry what is known as “storm stock”—extra poles, conductors, transformers, and other equipment that might need to be rapidly available. But the surplus stock tends to be somewhat meager, Aaronson says. The industry already has equipment-sharing programs in case one area runs short, and it’s pushing suppliers to ramp up production where possible, although many of those suppliers are also struggling to cope with the pandemic.

Some equipment, such as transformers, turbine wheels, and circuit breakers, is manufactured overseas, and utilities began experiencing disruptions back in January, when factories in China’s Hubei province, where the novel coronavirus is believed to have originated, shut down. On 1 May, U.S. president Donald Trump issued an executive order banning the purchase of electrical-grid equipment that comes from a country designated as a foreign adversary or that might pose a risk of sabotage. The threat identified in the executive order “is nothing new, but it’s shining a flashlight on an issue that has existed over time,” says Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and a leader in the field of electric-utility security.

Aaronson plays down that threat, however, noting that while potential attackers might see a spiraling crisis as an opportunity to wreak mayhem, the same emergency puts utilities on heightened alert. “During things like a pandemic, our workforce, in particular our cybersecurity workforce, is hypervigilant,” he says.

Even as states continue to grapple with new coronavirus cases and try to figure how to safely resume activity, epidemiologists are warning about a second wave later this year, which could coincide with a new flu season and also with peak hurricane season in North America. Even as they brace for what’s to come, utilities are looking further ahead. Once the pandemic has passed, experts say, the lessons learned may help the industry not only prepare better for the next emergency but also improve its operations in good times. Some of the changes made to cope with the crisis, such as more remote work and a greater reliance on digital technology, could become permanent. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get back to what we considered normal before,” Keesler says.

About the Author

Neil Savage is a freelance science and technology writer based in Lowell, Mass., and a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum. His topics of interest include photonics, physics, computing, materials science, and semiconductors. His most recent article, “Tiny Satellites Could Distribute Quantum Keys,” describes an experiment in which cryptographic keys were distributed from satellites released from the International Space Station. He serves on the steering committee of New England Science Writers.

Tiny Satellites Could Distribute Quantum Keys

Post Syndicated from Neil Savage original

Unbreakable quantum keys that use the laws of physics to protect their secrets could be transmitted from orbiting devices a person could lift with one hand, according to experiments conducted from the International Space Station.

Researchers launched a tiny, experimental satellite loaded with optics that could emit entangled pairs of photons. Entangled photons share quantum mechanical properties in such a way that measuring the state of one member of the pair—such as its polarization—instantly tells you what the state of its partner is. Such entanglement could be the basis for quantum key distribution, in which cryptographic keys are used to decode messages. If an eavesdropper were to intercept one of the photons and measure it, that would change the state of both, and the user would know the key had been compromised.

FCC Approves 5G Upgrade Order in an Effort to Speed Rollouts

Post Syndicated from Neil Savage original

The path to rolling out new 5G wireless service in the United States may have gotten a bit smoother. This week, the Federal Communications Commission clarified some of the rules for approving new 5G equipment installations, although two dissenting commissioners said the FCC should have waited until local governments didn’t have a pandemic and demonstrations to deal with.

The commission voted 3-2 on Tuesday to clarify rules for streamlined approval that it had written in 2014. The two Democrats on the board voted no.

Engineers Bang Tiny Laser Drum To Speed Data Transmission

Post Syndicated from Neil Savage original

Societies in Africa, the Amazon basin, and New Guinea used to send messages over long distances by banging on drums. Now a group of scientists in the United Kingdom is adapting that idea, using sound pulses to speed up the transmission of data.

Data centers and satellite relays have vast amounts of information to send from one place to another, so speeding up transmission would help enormously. Quantum cascade lasers (QCLs) can emit light at terahertz frequencies, but data has to be encoded onto the laser beam, and the basic laws of physics place a limit on how fast electronic systems can modulate the beam.

So engineers from the University of Leeds and the University of Nottingham in England decided to skip the electronics and use an acoustic wave to modulate the light instead. They describe their proof-of-concept in a recent paper in Nature Communications.

A QCL consists of a series of quantum wells, small areas that confine electrons at specific energy levels. As an electron drops from one well to the next in a sort of waterfall effect, it emits a photon, so a single electron can produce many photons.

To modulate the emission of those photons, and thus encode data onto the laser beam, the research team attached a thin aluminum film to one contact of the laser. They then hit the film with pulses from a different type of laser. Each brief pulse caused the aluminum skin to produce an acoustic wave that ran through the QCL, slightly deforming the structure.

 “It’s as if the whole system’s being shaken really,” says John Cunningham, a professor of electronic and electrical engineering at Leeds who led the research. “It changes the probability of electron transfer between the quantum wells.”

The team used an off-the-shelf QCL to create its prototype system, and only achieved modulation of about 6 percent. Cunningham says it should be possible to reach 100 percent modulation by redesigning the laser so that the quantum wells are specifically engineered to respond to acoustic waves. He’d also like to incorporate a semiconductor phonon laser—a saser, the sonic equivalent of a laser—invented by Tony Kent, a professor of physics at Nottingham and a co-author of the paper. That would make the system more compact and efficient.

Electronic circuits, limited by inductance, capacitance, and resistance, can modulate a laser at a few tens of gigahertz at most. Cunningham says an acoustic system should increase that to hundreds of gigahertz for a tenfold increase in transmission speed, and might one day get even faster.

Here’s How This Metasurface Lens Could Improve Imaging

Post Syndicated from Neil Savage original

Processing images to allow self-driving cars to see where they’re going could get easier thanks to a specially sculpted lens that does the work of a computer.

Dutch and American researchers say they can use a metasurface to passively detect the edges of objects in video. Computers can perform such edge detection for autonomous vehicles or virtual reality applications, but that uses power and is not instantaneous. “If you want to do that digitally, it takes time for the computer to compute,” says Albert Polman, who heads the Light Management in New Photovoltaic Materials group at AMOLF, a scientific research institute in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

In a paper in Nano Letters, Polman and colleagues describe how their material performs the mathematical operations necessary for edge detection. They built a metasurface, which is studded with tiny pillars, smaller than the wavelength of light, which can manipulate light in unusual ways based on their size and arrangement. In this case, they started with a thin sheet of sapphire, less than half a millimeter thick, and added pillars of silicon that were 206 nm thick, 142 nm tall, and spaced 300 nm apart.

When placed on the surface of a standard CCD chip, the metasurface acts like a lens, passing light that strikes it at steep angles but filtering out light hitting it at very slight angles. The features of an image are built from combinations of different light waves, and the waves that get filtered out carry the fine details of the image, leaving only the sharper components, such as the edges of a person’s face compared to the whiteboard behind her.

Depending on the computer and the size of the image, it might take several milliseconds to process this information digitally. With the analog approach, only limiting factor is the thickness of the metasurface. “It’s just the time light takes to travel 150 nm, which is basically nothing,” Polman says.

It’s also a passive technique. “It’s just a piece of glass, so you don’t need to give it power,” he says. Of course, the digital camera and a computer would still have a role, but Polman says this hybrid approach should be more efficient.

The researchers would like to try other materials, such as titanium oxide or silicon nitride, to see if they can get even better results. And while this metasurface captures edges in one dimension, they’d like to try two-dimensional designs, so they can capture edges at different orientations.

Laser LiFi Could Send Data Speeds Soaring

Post Syndicated from Neil Savage original

Replacing radio waves with laser light could boost the speed and reach of communications far beyond that promised by 5G. It could allow autonomous cars to talk to each other, let drones send high-resolution photos to the ground, and move large volumes of data around smart factories and smart homes. At least that’s the vision of SLD Laser, a Santa Barbara, Calif., company that demonstrated its latest version of laser LiFi at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Mixing Quantum States Boosts Fiber Communications

Post Syndicated from Neil Savage original

It’s difficult to send quantum information over the fiber-optic networks that carry most of the world’s data, but being able to would allow people to encrypt their messages with secret codes made unbreakable by the laws of physics. Now researchers have found a way to allow the transmission of such codes over long distances, by combining different quantum properties on the same photons.