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Software is eating circuit breakers

Back in 2011, Marc Andreessen famously said that software is eating the world. What is being eaten includes many things. Retail, for example, marketing, photography, entire white collar job categories, and so on. And now, circuit breakers as well.

Now, when circuit breakers get eaten by software, it might not be as “glamorous” as when software is eating banking, for example. But as I will explain below, digitizing circuit breakers may have profound effects on how power grids are set up and operated. Digital circuit breakers may even enable new, more tailored business models. In other words, digital circuit breakers might end up being a game-changing innovation.

Related article: How you can discover game-changing innovations.

Previously in our blog, we already looked at other examples of software eating things. For instance, software is eating AI chips, and shock absorbers too. Or at least software is eating the traditional shock absorber business model, which was about “selling hardware components”, whereas the new business model is also data-driven, “selling high-resolution road condition data”.

Related article: Software may now be eating AI chips too

How I found out about digital circuit breakers

Now, let’s look at how software is eating circuit breakers. But not just them, very likely also a number of other power electronics devices along with them.

Full disclosure, I have absolutely no technical expertise on circuit breakers. But I do have a general interest in energy tech topics, particularly renewable energy innovations. I get notified by innovations in this area by Mergeflow’s Weekly360 email update reports. These are weekly (hence the name) emails that notify me of new venture investments, R&D, news and blogs, and market estimates. In this case, the topic area are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. And a little while ago, one of these Weekly360s notified me of a venture investment in a company called Atom Power:

My Weekly360 from Mergeflow, notifying me of the venture investment in Atom Power. Atom Power makes digital circuit breakers.
My Weekly360 from Mergeflow notifying me of the venture investment in Atom Power

This was early June 2020, when Atom Power raised $17.75Mio from Valor Equity Partners, Rockwell Automation, ABB Technology Ventures, and Atreides Management. Notably, one of their earlier investors, Siemens’ Next47 venturing unit, is not mentioned (note that this does not necessarily mean that they did not participate in this Series B funding round).

Zooming in on Atom Power

Atom Power’s circuit breakers are “based on a combination of silicon carbide transistors with software”, according to IEEE Spectrum. Here is what they look like:

Atom Power circuit breaker. Image from atompower.com.
Atom Power circuit breaker

How is this different from current, non-digital, circuit breakers? Or, put differently, what can they do that current circuit breakers cannot do?

According to vcaonline.com, “unlike traditional circuit breakers, the device intelligently manages the flow of power with software and semiconductors, connects unlimited power sources into one point, and dynamically switches between them based on need.”

This means:

  • Atom Power’s circuit breakers can act as “meters, load controllers, surge-protection devices, power-transfer switches, and demand management systems”, according to IEEE Spectrum.
  • It is fast. 3,000x faster than traditional circuit breakers, according to the same IEEE Spectrum article.

By the way, my 360° search on Atom Power in Mergeflow turned up patents as well. An early one from 2015, for instance, by Atom Power founders Ryan Kennedy and Denis Kouroussis:

Dynamic coordination of protection devices in electrical distribution systems

But is Atom Power the only company offering digital circuit breakers? I checked with Mergeflow, and it seems they are not.

Blixt: Digital circuit breakers from Sweden

Blixt, from Sweden, is another young company making digital circuit breakers. You can buy their development kit online:

Blixt's digital circuit breaker dev kit that you can buy from their online store. Image from shop.blixt.tech.
Blixts dev kit that you can buy from their online store

Seemingly similar to Atom Power, they argue that their digital circuit breaker can replace many traditional power management and metering devices, and “turn the old fuse box into an intelligent energy management central”.

Blixt say that their digital circuit breaker is “at least 1000x faster than mechanical breakers”.

In 2019, Blixt presented their technology at the ARPA-E Innovation Summit. Here is a press release that I found with Mergeflow.

Blixt’s work was funded by an EU Horizon 2020 grant:

Putting digital circuit breakers at the centre of the smart grid

Other partners, in addition to the EU Horizon 2020 program, include the Swedish Energy Agency. Furthermore, startup accelerator Everyday, and BayWa’s renewable energy arm BayWa r.e.. Another partner is ABB’s innovation growth hub SynerLeap. I found this interesting, particularly considering ABB’s involvement with Atom Power (see above).

And Mergeflow says that in 2017, they patented their technology:

Circuit for breaking alternating current

The inventors listed are Blixt co-founder Jan Johansson and Henrik Borg (I could not find a verifiable link because he does not seem to be with Blixt anymore).

Atom Power describe the technology behind their circuit breaker in some detail. By contrast, I found it harder to obtain the same kind of information for Blixt’s circuit breaker. But the above-mentioned patent has one sentence in its description that may provide a clue: “at least one controllable switch (…) may be any in the group comprising: relay, thyristor, triac, gate turn off thyristor, transistor and any other type of silicon controlled rectifier“.

Digital circuit breakers = power systems’ smartphone?

Digital circuit breakers reminded me of an article several years ago, “Everything from this 1991 Radio Shack ad you can now do with your phone”. In order to drive home the magnitude of the change brought about by smartphones, the article had this picture of an ad:

Image of a 1991 Radio Shack ad, taken from a 2014 article in the Huffington Post. Perhaps digital circuit breakers are power systems' equivalent to smartphones.
Image of a 1991 Radio Shack ad

The ad shows all the devices that were replaced by smartphones. Notice that this list is from 2014. By now you can probably add most cameras to this list of replaced things as well.

Now, consider the scale, volume, and number of power grids, building management systems, etc., and let that sink in.

This article was written by:

Florian Wolf

Florian Wolf

Florian is founder and CEO at Mergeflow, where he is responsible for company strategy and analytics development at Mergeflow. Previously, Florian developed analytics software for risk management at institutional investors. He also worked as a Research Associate in Computer Science and Genetics at the University of Cambridge. Florian has a PhD in Cognitive Sciences from MIT.

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