SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
 

  New York blackout was preventable
Jagvir Goyal
T
HE US and Canada are on a massive hunt to pinpoint the real causes of the big power failure that occurred on the evening of August 14, 2003, and threw life completely out of gear in large sections of two countries. For the US, the hi-tech capital of the world, it was an image-tarring incident and now, it fast wants to carry out an image-repairing exercise. The two countries have jointly constituted a "Power System Outrage Task Force" which has been working to single out the exact reason for the Big Blackout.

UNDERSTANDING THE UNIVERSE
WITH PROF YASH PAL

New products & discoveries

  • Intelligent helicopter

  • Ultra-thin wires

  • Better vision for weapons

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New York blackout was preventable
Jagvir Goyal

THE US and Canada are on a massive hunt to pinpoint the real causes of the big power failure that occurred on the evening of August 14, 2003, and threw life completely out of gear in large sections of two countries. For the US, the hi-tech capital of the world, it was an image-tarring incident and now, it fast wants to carry out an image-repairing exercise. The two countries have jointly constituted a "Power System Outrage Task Force" which has been working to single out the exact reason for the Big Blackout.

The Task Force has created three working groups to look into different aspects of the blackout. The first is Electric System Working Group. This group is checking out various components of the power grid and its operation systems. It has a massive task at hand as the US electric grid has a very complex and sensitive infrastructure. The second is Nuclear Working Group looking into the effects of the blackout on the working of nuclear power stations situated in the affected areas. The third is Security Working Group investigating the possibility of any sabotage of power grid or any intentional actions behind the blackout.

As Herb Dhaliwal, the Canadian Minister of Indian origin, supervises the investigation, the Task Force has prepared its interim report on the blackout and has come out with some definite conclusions. And the major conclusion of the Interim Report is that the blackout was largely preventable!

It has been found that the problem began in Ohio. Three high-voltage transmission lines came in contact with some trees very close to them, short-circuited and went out of service. These lines were being operated by a company named First Energy Corporation. As was provided in the system, as soon as the transmission lines short-circuited, an alarm should have been triggered on, alerting the control room operators. But the alarm system was not working properly. It didn't go on. To add to this, the monitoring equipment of First Energy Corporation too was not working well. It also failed to tell about the downed lines.

Had the control room operators been alerted, they could have done some loadshedding thus keeping the problem within control. Moreover, they could have informed the neighbouring utilities and reliability coordinators who could have taken action to prevent overloading of other lines under use. So electricity flowed to other lines causing their overloading.

While all this was taking shape, another entity, Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), was having problems with its system analysis tools. MISO is mainly a coordinating agency for different operating agencies, including First Energy Corporation. So it didn't come to know about the problems with First Energy Corporation. The working group also found that MISO was using outdated data in its monitoring job which prevented it from detecting problems and taking remedial action. It was also not equipped with effective means to pinpoint the exact location of a fault in the transmission lines. So MISO too could not take action to stop or lessen the problem from aggravating.

The result was that the balance between generation and consumption of electricity was disturbed. Large fluctuations in voltage levels destabilised the system. Excessive electricity quickly moved to the other lines which were not prepared to receive it and got shut down. So electricity moved further on to other lines, overloading and shutting off more and more of them. This made the power imbalance grow more and more leading to an uncontrollable situation and resulting into this cascading blackout.

The first working group has also related the geography of the area with the massive blackout. The number of power lines in an area, their proximity to major power plants and load centres, the extent of electricity already flowing in the lines that received extra electricity and the nature of protective equipment also played their role in the spread of blackout.

The second working group has found no fault with the working of nuclear power stations in the area. All the affected nuclear plants followed the laid procedures and shut down safely during the power failure and were restarted safely when the grid was restored.

The third working group, after its detailed investigations, has ruled out any possibility of a terrorist attack, sabotage, deliberate damage or foul play. So the investigation sums up to ineffective operation, control and monitoring of transmission system as the basic reason for blackout.

Moving in a systematic manner, the Task Force will now hold a number of public meetings in the affected areas and will invite public opinion on the findings of the working groups. Public shall also be asked to present their ideas for improvement of the system and prevention of such an incident in future. Then under phase III, the Task Force shall issue a final report with its recommendations for improvement of system. Under Phase IV, action on the final report shall begin.

In parallel to the above investigation, the US has asked India for guidance in tackling blackouts and managing transmission system. Power Grid Corporation of India (PGCIL) is now planning to set up a $ 250 million pilot transmission project in the US. PGCIL teams have already visited the US, have made presentations to the Federal Electricity Regulatory Committee (FERC) on the transmission system in India. The US Power department is now going to associate with PGCIL to revamp its transmission network system.

While this exercise continues, what emerges clearly is that the complex and sensitive power grids can function properly only if a balance between electric supply and demand is maintained. Problems are to be identified by the engineers and allied staff by remaining ahead of the problems and taking remedial action before they grow beyond a certain magnitude and become uncontrollable. And if the undesirable situation arises, the problem must be located and the balance restored by regulating the power supply from power plants or by adjusting equipment to stabilise the power or by taking the consumers off-line.
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UNDERSTANDING THE UNIVERSE
WITH PROF YASH PAL

YASH PALOzone is a gas. Then how is it possible to have drills to make holes in the ozone layer of the atmosphere?

Ozone is a gas. Its molecule is made up of three atoms of oxygen. It is heavier than oxygen and nitrogen both. It is created at high altitude by the combination of oxygen molecules with atoms of oxygen. Oxygen atoms themselves arise through breakup of oxygen molecules by high-energy ultraviolet rays from the sun. Ozone is continuously created and destroyed. Destruction can be in collisions with other molecules or through absorption of low energy ultraviolet rays that would otherwise come to the earth surface and seriously affect our lives. Because of these processes there is an equilibrium amount of ozone at any time. It is believed that this equilibrium has been upset through emission of gases like chlorofluorocarbons that produce free chlorine atoms in the atmosphere. Chlorine atoms destroy ozone very efficiently and reduce its concentration. Such depletion is especially effective near the polar regions of the earth, particularly over Antarctica, because the wind pattern there is circumpolar and almost isolates that part of the atmospheric air from the rest. Also the frozen nuclei at that altitude act as bases where the destruction can take place more efficiently. This region of selective depletion of ozone has been called a ozone hole. All it implies is that there are regions on earth where the depletion is particularly large. There is no other drilling except through interference by human industrial activity.

What are the components of fire?

In popular parlance when we talk of fire we do imply some thing or some phenomena where heat is generated. But that is not all. We do not think of fire when metabolism in our body keeps us warm. A convective room heater is not supposed to be one fire, nor is a microwave oven in which we reheat our food. I suspect that your question does not refer to such processes, in spite of the fact that heat is being produced in all of them. You are curious about components of those manifestations in which flames rise up producing heat and light. In our environment such fires have to be lit. We strike a match, there is lightening strike, there is a spark, perhaps from a gas lighter, or some other method of raising the temperature of some material such as oil, coal, wood wax or petrol. That by itself is not enough we should not forget the essentiality of oxygen availability in this process. Luckily that is abundant in our atmosphere.

The process of combination of hydrocarbons like the ones mentioned above requires some initial raising of temperature as indicated, but is self-sustaining because energy is released in this process. The products of combustion are multifarious though mainly they are oxides of carbon and hydrogen, sometimes also of sulfur. The high temperature produces heated carbon particles that glow, gases are ionized and emit light through recombination. A fire flame is also an example of plasma, in which electrons and ions coexist for a while. Heated gases rise through convection and create the well-known shape of a flame. Large fires cause storms in which air is sucked in from all around and there is lot of turbulence. In crowded areas and in forests such fires spread out and become difficult to control.
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New products & discoveries

Intelligent helicopter

Intelligent helicopterAustralian scientists have developed a "brain", which enables the production of a world-first low-cost, intelligent small helicopter, set to end many difficult and dangerous tasks undertaken by humans.

The CSIRO Mantis can simply be told where to go and what to do, and it will go off, do the job and find its own way home, unassisted.

The low-cost CSIRO Mantis, described as a vertical take-off, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), provides a host of new ways of doing things.

Ultra-thin wires

Researchers have developed a process to create wires only 50 nanometers (billionths of a metre) thick. Made from silica, the same mineral found in quartz, the wires carry light in an unusual way. Because the wires are thinner than the wavelengths of light they transport, the material serves as a guide around which light waves flow.

In addition, because the researchers can fabricate the wires with a uniform diameter and smooth surfaces down to the atomic level, the light waves remain coherent as they travel.

The smaller fibres will allow devices to transmit more information while using less space. The new material may have applications in ever-shrinking medical products and tiny photonics equipment such as nanoscale laser systems, tools for communications and sensors. Size is of critical importance to sensing--with more, smaller-diameter fibers packed into the same area, sensors could detect many toxins, for example, at once and with greater precision and accuracy.

Researchers at Harvard University led by Eric Mazur and Limin Tong (also of Zhejiang University in China), along with colleagues from Tohoku University in Japan, report their findings in the Dec. 18 issue of the journal Nature.

Better vision for weapons

The next generation of smart weapons may "see" targets with a manmade version of that wonder of the natural world, the insect eye.

Inspired by the panoramic and precise vision of flies and other insects, researchers at several universities and institutions are working on biologically-inspired "eyes" for smart weapons and other self-guided machines.

At the University of Florida, the focus of the "bio-optics synthetic systems research," sponsored by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is on adapting mechanisms called "photon sieves" for visual purposes.

"We think we can use this concept to make smart weapons smarter," said Paul Holloway, a distinguished professor of materials science and engineering and the project's lead researcher.

Holloway and several colleagues at UF have received more than $400,000 for the first phase of the research from DARPA.

The project is only about a year old, but the researchers have applied for several patents for their findings and plan scientific publication of their work.

Holloway said today's smart weapons rely on systems that use refractive optics, or lenses that bend light, to produce a focused view of the target.

The resulting image is like what is seen through a telescope - the view of the target is good but the surroundings are completely lost.
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