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NETL’s Transformer Watchman Wins R&D 100 Award
The Transformer Watchman, an integrated fiber optic-based sensor system that monitors large power transformers and distribution transformers and reports on the health of these critical components.

The Transformer Watchman is an integrated fiber optic-based sensor system that monitors large power transformers and distribution transformers and reports on the health of these critical components.

An innovative sensor technology, developed by NETL and its partners at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh-based company Sensible Photonics Inc. that can protect the Nation’s energy infrastructure, help save lives, and save the economy billions of dollars by preventing electric service downtime has scored a 2023 R&D 100 award in the topic area of IT/Electrical.  

By earning the prestigious R&D 100 Award, the new technology, called the Transformer Watchman, is recognized as one of the top 100 revolutionary technologies of the past year. The 2023 R&D 100 gala banquet will be held in San Diego, California Nov. 16.

Established in 1963, the R&D 100 is the only science and technology award that recognizes new commercial products, technologies and materials for technological significance that are available for sale or license. 

Grid transformers are critical components of the world’s energy infrastructure that deliver electricity to every end user; from homes and hospitals to schools and large industries but are extremely vulnerable pieces of equipment that are susceptible to degradation, failure and acts of terrorism. About 75% of large transformers in the United States are more than 25 years old. Every time one of these large devices fails, there is usually a severe electrical outage and a long wait time to replace the equipment. Power outages cost the U.S. $150B annually, and every hour a power outage lasts can cost a large manufacturer $5M.

As infrastructure continues to age, the primary issue is maintaining reliability. That’s why the NETL Sensors Team in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh and Sensible Photonics developed the Transformer Watchman, an integrated fiber optics-based sensor system that can monitor dissolved gases, acoustics, and temperatures of transformers simultaneously and continuously to monitor and warn of any dangers that might be encountered. Optical fiber-based sensors have unique advantages for power grid monitoring because they are immune to electromagnetic interference, have long-reach, exhibit small size, are flexible, and safer compared to other electrical based sensors. 

“The R&D 100 competition is also known as the ‘Oscars of Innovation’ because it showcases the visionary works of the most brilliant scientists and engineers in the world,” said Sean Plasynski, NETL acting director. “This win showcases NETL’s exceptional talent and our researchers’ important work to improve the performance of our current infrastructure while simultaneously developing the technologies of tomorrow.”

Implementing the system across the U.S. grid and globally can result in billions and trillions of dollars in saved repair costs and time, along with the immeasurable benefit of saving human lives from disastrous failures by ensuring hospitals, traffic signals, internet functions, home heating and cooling, streetlights, communications, and countless other critical components continue operating without interruption.

The Transformer Watchman can also play a role in the efforts to decarbonize the world’s power sector and economy to address the effects of climate change. To enable a clean energy and low-carbon economy, the integration of renewable energies to the power grid requires more flexibility and endurance to accommodate larger swings in power supply and demand. This brings in more unpredictable factors to the transformers.

“The Transformer Watchman can solve this issue with real-time and in situ monitoring to make the nation’s power grid and transformers more predictable and safer,” said Ruishu Wright, Ph.D., NETL research scientist of the Functional Materials Team.

“Additionally, this invention will have great versatility during the ongoing clean energy transition,” said Michael Buric, Ph.D., also on the Functional Materials Team.

“The Transformer Watchman is based upon a portfolio of intellectual property and technology development that goes back more than a decade and it has been supported through numerous DOE-funded programs, including the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium, Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, Office of Electricity, Office of Nuclear Energy, and the Solar Energy Technology Office and others,” said University of Pittsburgh’s Paul Ohodnicki, Ph.D., one of the developers.

“It is very rewarding to see the idea maturing from an early concept into an emerging technology recognized by the R&D 100 award program with the potential to impact electric power grid resilience and stability moving into the future. I am excited to continue collaborating with colleagues at both NETL and Sensible Photonics in the next phase of the technology development and deployment.”

The Transformer Watchman presents society with a robust and reliable solution to monitoring power and distribution transformers using a commercially viable combination of performance and cost for large-scale commercial adoption that improves reliability and modernization of power grid while ensuring cyber-physical security.

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.