The center, headquartered at NC State, was established in 2008, by a five-year $18.5 million Engineering Research Center grant from the National Science Foundation. In addition to NC State, the center also includes additional faculty and facilities from other universities, including Arizona State, Florida State, Florida A&M, Missouri University of Science and Technology, and RWTH University in Aachen, Germany.
Huang, who also is the Progress Energy Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NC State, initially used silicon based components for his early transformers, but found them unreliable and bulky at high voltages for large-scale use. So he switched to developing transformers with semiconductors made of combinations of silicon and carbon, or gallium and nitrogen, which perform better and also are smaller.
“Every home should have a smart transformer,” Huang says. “This will replace the conventional transformer located on your neighborhood utility pole. This device also is broadband-based, making your home automatically broadband enabled. You could even get rid of your current router.” More importantly, “when we have a lot of these smart transformers, our grid will perform like an energy internet, people can participate in the exchange of electrons, that is, energy,” he adds.
“Today’s power grid, which is a huge achievement, only allows power to flow in one direction,” Martin-Vega says. “Here, you’re talking about having this flow go in the other direction as well. People who are consumers of energy can also be generators of energy. It’s a lot like once upon a time, you had mainframe computers. Then PCs came along, and now there is information going in both directions.”
Ultimately, intelligent transformers will result in better power quality, fewer outages, lower costs, less reliance on fossil fuels, and greater integration of new emerging electronic devices that store energy, they say. “As soon as you have connectivity with renewable energy, you will motivate more use of renewable energy,” Martin-Vega says.
Huang agrees, adding: “This will promote green technology in a way we may not be able to predict, it will allow consumers to go out and buy things that generate and store energy, go home and plug them in and start to participate in the exchange of power. This helps both consumers and the utility companies. With these smart transformers, your home will be able to do things other than just consume energy. This will really unlock the power of people, a key ingredient for innovation.”