New Funding Opportunity for Next-Gen DC Circuit Breakers from U.S. DoE

September 13, 2018 by Paul Shepard

The U.S. Department of Energy announced up to $15 million in funding for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, Building Reliable Electronics to Achieve Kilovolt Effective Ratings Safely (BREAKERS). BREAKERS projects will develop designs for medium voltage, direct current (MVDC) circuit breakers for a variety of applications.

BREAKERS projects will inform the creation of new devices capable of better securing the grid by eliminating electrical faults, improving efficiency and reaction times while potentially enabling greater proliferation of renewable resources and eventual electrification of ships and aircraft.

Fields that could benefit from BREAKERS projects include surge protection, transportation electrification, grid distribution, intermittent power interconnection, and offshore oil and gas production.

"Before it arrives to the consumer, electricity goes through multiple conversion steps, and this infrastructure must be protected by circuit breakers that keep the grid safe from disruptions and failures," said Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette.

"For power traveling over direct current at higher voltages, this represents a serious challenge. BREAKERS teams will meet this challenge by designing new, fast-acting circuit breakers that protect our grid, improve its efficiency, and open the door to new ways to get this vital resource to American homes, businesses, and industry,” added Brouillette.

Today's grid is powered mostly by ac electricity. DC current has gained in popularity, thanks in part to lower distribution losses and higher power carrying capacity.  Because dc current behaves differently, breakers at higher voltages are prone to electrical arcing, which can lead to fire or breaker failure.

BREAKERS projects must overcome this limitation while handling large amounts of power and voltage. MVDC circuit breakers could enable significant improvements in the United States' electrical system, transforming how electricity is delivered and managed across the entire power grid, as well as a multitude of critical applications in industry, transportation, and resource production.

Potential Impact:

If successful, developments from BREAKERS projects will enable the development of fast, efficient, and reliable MVDC circuit breakers.

  • Security: DC circuit breakers respond significantly faster than their AC counterparts, enabling prompt isolation and protection of assets from electrical faults.
  • Environment: DC microgrids could enable greater deployment and adoption of renewable resources, greatly reducing power sector emissions. Electrification of transportation (ships, aviation) with DC systems would also significantly reduce emissions.
  • Economy: Proliferation of MVDC systems protected by DC circuit breakers could drive higher energy efficiency, lower equipment costs, and bolster grid resiliency.

This funding opportunity encourages collaboration across all disciplines, calling on scientists, engineers, and practitioners from different organizations, scientific fields, and technology sectors to form diverse and experienced project teams. These interdisciplinary and cross-organizational collaborations facilitate scientific and technological discoveries that a single group alone would not be able to achieve.