Recent Innovations Show Promise for Pulsed-Power Technologies
Many technologies center on energy, whether it’s a matter of generating, saving or harvesting it. Scientists are always finding novel ways to create and capitalize on different kinds of power as research into these areas continues. One of the most cutting-edge and exciting of these developments is pulsed power.
Pulsed power may not be a familiar term for many. These technologies have yet to break into mainstream applications, but even now, in their early stages, they show significant potential.
Here’s a closer look at pulsed-power technology, what it can do and how it’s evolving.
What Is Pulsed-Power Technology?
Pulsed power is the practice of storing energy over a long period before releasing it in a far shorter one. The resulting pulse can deliver a considerable amount of power to a specific target.
The actual energy level in these pulses may not be any higher than other technologies, but the end power delivery can be much greater. As U.S. military research explains, a stick of dynamite and a candy bar contain the same amount of energy: roughly one megajoule. However, because dynamite releases it far faster than a candy bar, its impact is far greater.
Pulsed-power technology aims to take advantage of this concept. It tries to store and release energy in such a way that a relatively small amount of power can deliver substantial results. Some materials also react differently to it, creating another area of study for these technologies.
Applications for Pulsed-Power Tech
Powerful energy delivery can be useful in many contexts. As a result, pulsed-power tech has several significant implications across various use cases. Here are a few of the most notable.
Renewable Energy Grids
Pulsed-power systems’ ability to store power and then adapt it to meet specific delivery needs is ideal for renewable energy. Renewables like wind and solar can’t produce energy on-demand, so grids need ways to store it to prevent waste and enable large-scale adoption.
Implementing a pulsed-power system in a renewable energy grid could help compensate for this problem. It would store energy as turbines or panels generate it, then release it to specific parts of the grid as needed.
Because electrical demand shifts, peaking in the afternoon during summer and in the morning in winter, storage and delivery systems must be adaptable. Pulsed-power technology adjusts according to needs by design, making it ideal for this use case. It could operate off usage data to deliver enough energy wherever it’s needed without wasting any.
Pulsed-power technologies could also help create biofuels. Algae is an ideal biofuel source thanks to its abundance and the fact that using it for energy won’t deplete food sources like first-generation biofuels. However, extracting oil from algae often involves high energy consumption and complex processes. Pulsed power could provide a solution.
Using pulsed power to turn algae into fuel could give researchers the same power output without using as much energy. This follows the exact concept as the TNT example. While a pulsed-power system’s electrical energy may be equivalent to a traditional one, its end delivery is far higher, accomplishing more work with less electricity.
As a result, pulsed power could provide a greener fuel without leading to higher emissions from electricity. That could be a crucial advancement, considering how 29% of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation.
These technologies also have significant potential for industrial machinery. Short, powerful bursts of energy are ideal for manufacturing equipment that must perform the same quick processes over extended periods. Conventional machinery can perform these fast, repetitive tasks well, but pulsed-power systems could match their efficacy with less energy consumption.
Manufacturing currently accounts for 74% of industrial energy consumption in the U.S. and almost a quarter of all energy end-use. Switching to renewable energy should be the ultimate goal for the sector, but until then, it must take steps to become more energy-efficient. Pulsed-power equipment could provide that efficiency.
Pulsed power could also ease the transition to green energy. Because these systems store energy until it’s needed, then use relatively little at a time, they mitigate renewables’ pitfall of being unable to power things on-demand.
One of the U.S. government's leading applications of pulsed-power technology is electric weaponry. Pulsed power could lead to systems that either use electricity as an energy weapon or use it to propel physical projectiles.
Electric pulsed-power weapons would be safer as they minimize how much volatile ordnance military forces must store and ship. Because pulsed-power systems can adapt their energy output, they could also adjust weapons’ lethality on demand. This could also benefit consumer markets, as 26% of gun owners use firearms for safety purposes, which may not require lethal weapons.
How Pulsed-Power Tech Is Evolving
Pulsed-power technology has yet to see much life outside of labs due to a few limitations. This equipment is expensive and complex. However, recent advancements are making it more affordable and versatile.
Sandia National Laboratories, the host of the largest pulsed-power device in the world today, is experimenting with several improved designs. One, a linear transformer driver, uses multiple smaller energy storage solutions instead of a few large ones. This reduces the need for compression, improving electrical efficiency and making these systems more affordable.
Other research projects involve using pulsed-power tech to convert energy into radiation like X-rays. These systems could make medical equipment more accurate and less energy-intensive, improving health and sustainability.
Researchers in other parts of the world are looking into pulsed-power water purification. These systems use electric fields to kill bacteria and viruses, including antibiotic-resistant contaminants. At scale, this technology could help expand clean drinking water supplies with less energy consumption.
Pulsed-Power Tech Has Impressive Potential
It may be unfamiliar to most people, but pulsed-power technology could substantially improve many industries. It could make manufacturing, health care, transportation, energy and military operations safer, greener and less wasteful.
Given the newness of this technology, researchers may have only scratched the surface of what it can do. As pulsed-power tech grows, so may its potential use cases.
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