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Groundbreaking Texas A&M invention could prevent future wildfires

Posted at 5:45 PM, Dec 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-03 20:42:04-05

COLLEGE STATION, TX — B. Don Russell didn't intend to create an invention to prevent wildfires from starting. He explained the initial purpose of his research was to create a reliable preventative system for utility companies.

"We were working first on reliability issues, okay, safety issues," explained Russell.

A Ph. D. and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Texas A&M, Russell said he saw a gap in preventative measures for current electrical powerhouses.

"They wait until it fails, and when it fails the lights go out, someone calls and tells them their lights are out and they go and find and fix it," he said.

Russell said the shelf life for power company's electrical mechanisms is long, but ultimately pieces fail, and for years utility companies have been fixing failures after they've already occurred.

"It turns out there are millions of parts and pieces out on the utility system- switches, clamps, connectors, transformers, capacitors, all sorts of equipment, not just the wires, and all of those are going to fail at some point," he said.

Often with failures come the potential for wildfires.

"Right now, electric utilities have no way to know when the first start failure occurs on a piece of equipment, nothing that is diagnostic," Russell said.

Now with 20 years of research, Russell and his team have created the Distribution Fault Anticipation, or DFA, a system he explained "continually monitors electric power circuits looking for faulty things, looking for abnormal conditions."

Russell said the system is not unlike the dynamics within modern cars, which alert the user to problems before they occur.

The team's DFA technology is commercialized and already in the hands of many within Texas and beyond.

"PG&E has six units up and running right now on circuits in high wild fire areas, and they are experimenting with them, and we are working with them. Texas A&M is working with them, under contract to help them know how they can best use this," said Russell. "This is completely out of the context of the way utilities operate today, so it’s going to change the paradigm."