Protecting the Power Grid

Dr. Kenneth Farmer, director of the Microelectronics Research Center, leads the team that is developing MEMS sensors to detect potential problems in the power grid.

Microscopic sensors that will prevent disruptions in electrical power are the focus of a project led by Kenneth R. Farmer, professor of physics and director of the Microelectronics Research Center. A joint effort between the New Jersey MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) Initiative and Public Service Enterprise Group, the project is developing fiber optical MEMS devices that will alert utilities of irregularities or deterioration within the power grid that may signal a system failure.
The first device in development targets a condition known as partial discharge (PD) activity. PDs occur in high voltage cables as a result of defects such as voids or contaminants. PD activity will gradually degrade and erode dielectric materials, eventually leading to final breakdown. NJIT researchers began by identifying the characteristic spark signature that accompanies a PD and then designed a MEMS sensor that could recognize the spark. This device is currently in field tests and a PSEG field station. The research partnership will submit a funding proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy to support a project that will expand the utility application of MEMS devices and demonstrate the concept of a "smart" utility.