DistribuTECH’s tech tour: Exploded batteries, inspection robots and microgrids

Delegates from DistribuTECH Conference and Exhibition 2014 in San Antonio received insight into the future of smart grid technology at San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

SwRI is a nonprofit, private research facility with 2,700 employees that occupies about 1,200 acres in San Antonio. Tour guides at the high-security property allowed delegates a glimpse into laboratories working on battery energy storage, cybersecurity, microgrid and electric vehicle technology.

At the Energy Storage System Evaluation and Safety Consortium (EssEs) lab, engineers work in a large, garage-like environment to take apart battery cells and see what kind of treatment they can stand. The batteries tested range from those used in electric vehicles to those that can be scaled up to megawatt-scale applications.

In one side laboratory, a set of huge oven-like machines expose battery cells to extreme heat or cold, as the experiment demands, revealing how temperature changes affects the battery’s ability to store or emit energy.

In another lab, a variety of different machines – with names like the shaker table, the blast chamber and the calorimeter – put batteries through different kinds of abuse.

One machine pierces the battery cells, while another crushes. Still another machine exposes the cells to changing atmospheric pressure to mimic what a battery might undergo during a shipment by air.

Some batteries are also overcharged or discharged quickly until chemical reactions set them on fire – all in the name of greater safety for the finished product.

In the Automation and Data Systems lab, engineers take “off the shelf” robots and enhance their machine perception – their senses, if you will – to give them functionalities that could be useful to owners of transmission and distribution infrastructure.

This lab built a pair of power line inspection robots for the Electric Power Research Institute that were featured the last time DistribuTECH came to San Antonio. Read more about those robots here.

A different robot rolls like a toy car, but uses suction to cling to any surface (even upside down), while using percussive sensors to test the integrity of concrete. This robot could have uses, the engineers said, in checking hydropower dams and nuclear reactor containment structures for cracks and imperfections.


In an adjoining room, other researchers have assembled a multispectral insulator inspection device that is equipped with an infrared camera, an ultraviolet camera and a normal RGB camera to zoom in on and detect temperature and airflow irregularities that could be indicators of damaged power generation or transmission and distribution equipment.

At the Smart Grid Laboratory, researchers are looking into a project called SPIDERS (Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security), which is based on a Joint Command Technology Development (JCTD) project between Department of Energy, Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security.

This system is an electric vehicle aggregation application, and controls a small fleet of electric vehicles at Fort Carson in Colorado, as well as a solar photovoltaic installation. The system has a total capacity of about 1.1 MW, of which the vehicles make up about one-fourth.

Cyber-secure computers network together the electric vehicle charging stations deployed at Fort Carson. When not being used, the stored power in the EVs can be deployed onto the grid. On a desk, a set of 12 light bulbs of different types visually represent the 12 EVs managed by the system.

The project is a proof-of-concept exercise meant to demonstrate the benefits of EVs beyond saving money on fuel, researchers said.

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