Welcome to the Tech Buzz for September! While the news has been busy reporting on the ravages of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, there’s been some other dire energy news stories that largely went unnoticed — the threat of hackers infiltrating the nation’s power grids and recent powerful geomagnetic storms caused by our own sun. As a consolation, some better news is on the horizon about those flammable cellphone batteries.
Energy Hackers Hover Like Dragonflies
Part of modernizing the U.S. grid system involves updating and policing its computer network security to keep the bad guys from taking control. What could go wrong? In December 2015, the Russian group Sandworm shut off the power to a quarter million Ukrainians by taking over the remote help desk tool of a Ukrainian energy utility. They hijacked the engineers’ mouse controls and and turned off dozens of circuit breakers. The utility’s engineers were completely helpless and watched as power to 230,000 customers was shut off —in the middle of winter.
On September 6, the computer security company Symantec reported that a concerted campaign was underway by a cyber espionage group it called Dragonfly 2.0. Dragonfly, it says, has advanced from just probing to actively targeting “energy grid operators, major electricity generation firms, petroleum pipeline operators, and energy industry industrial equipment providers” in a bid to access operational systems.
Dragonfly has used spam email campaigns, watering hole attacks, and trojans to infect computers in targeted organizations. In the US, reports surfaced this summer of companies that manage nuclear facilities in the U.S. being compromised by hackers. The Wolf Creek Nuclear power plant in Kansas was one of several US plants hit in July by a Russian hacking campaign called “Palmetto Fusion.”
How secure is the US grid? Rob Lee, CEO of Dragos said that while hacker incursions into US power systems are not on par with the 2015 Ukraine hack, it shows that “we do need to do more in the face of an aggressive adversary.”
Most Massive Solar Flare in a Decade Hits Earth
A Coronal Mass Ejection,or CME, occurs when magnetic fields of plasma on the sun’s surface erupt into space as a massive flare carrying billions of tons of electrically charged gas and plasma. A CME takes an average time of 98 hours to hit the earth, though fast ones can make the trip in 14-17 hours. Not only do CMEs disrupt satellites and radio communications and set off awesome aurora displays, but when the polarity of this mass is the opposite of earth’s magnetic field, it can also spell big trouble for power grids. When a CME strikes the earth’s magnetic field, terawatts of electricity rush into the planet – literally, into the ground. All this current can then induce electrical current in transmission lines, pipelines, anything capable of conducting electricity.
Solar flares are rated on a scale of A, B, C, M and X that measures their intensity and power. Small flares that are too weak to effect the earth fall into the A through C-class. M-class flares are big enough to effect radio transmissions at the poles and are bad enough to make astronauts on the International Space Station duck for cover from burst of radiation. X-class flares that result in CMEs are the biggest and most powerful. Each letter scale rates flare power from 1-9 and each letter represents a 10-fold increase in power over the one before it. So, an B-scale flare is 10 times more powerful than an A flare, C would be 100 times, M would be 1,000 times, and X would be 10,000 times more powerful.
Because X flares are so powerful, the X scale doesn’t stop at 9.
A geomagnetic storm sparked by an X15 CME in March, 1989, caused a blackout in Quebec for nine hours. Auroras were seen as far south as Florida and Texas. Communication and control for weather satellites were disrupted and false sensor alerts affected the space shuttle Discovery.
The largest CME ever recorded in modern times erupted during the Halloween Storms of 2003. A total of 17 CMEs hit the earth from October 19 through November 7, the strongest topping out at X28. Auroras were seen as far south as Florida.
Just a short time ago, September 4 saw two flares. The first was rated at X2.2 The second was even larger, rated as X9.3, which is the largest one seen since 2006. Though not the strongest flare ever, the second CME packed a punch. Initially, the Space Weather Prediction Center rated it as a G3 (strong) storm with the potential to cause power system voltage irregularities. That rating was raised on September 7 to G4 (severe) storm due to the possibility that it could induce current in power grids. The storm continued through until September 9 when it was downgraded to a G2 (Minor-Moderate).
And we’re not done, yet.
Another CME rated at X8.2 erupted on September 10, sending a massive CME racing from the sun at about 6263 mph. Fortunately, this eruption made no more than a glancing blow at the earth when it arrived on September 12. The flare’s radiation storm, however, caused radio black outs, cell phone disruptions, and navigation position errors —all of which might interfere with hurricane clean up efforts in Texas, the Caribbean, and Florida.
Better Tech Avoids Li Battery Fires
The phenomena of Li ion cell phone batteries suddenly bursting into flames has almost become a part of pop culture. The problem with Li-ion batteries is that the electrolyte that’s used is prone to dendrite formation when the battery is cycled (charged and then discharged). Dendrites are microscopic fibers of lithium that grow and spread from the anode (positive) side through the electrolyte towards the cathode (negative) side. When the dendrites touch the cathode side, they cause a short circuit that can result in a fire.
That’s probably about to change for the better. Scientists from the US Army Research Lab discovered they could make a reliable, powerful Li-ion battery if they used water-salt based electrolytes. The battery would be safer —even when they poke holes through it with a nail. Why didn’t anyone do this before? The problem was that the positive electrode or anode in the battery got eaten up by water-based electrolytes. To get around this problem, the Army researchers made a hydrophobic gel coating that didn’t react or even mix with water that they smear on the anode as “an interphase precursor coating.” While this new type of Li-ion battery does give off 4 volts, enough to power a laptop, there remain issues with cycling. With funding, the technology could be ready in five years.
Another means of eliminating battery fires in existing Li-ion battery electrolyte formulation was discovered by Drexel University researchers when they put nanodiamonds ( diamond particles 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a hair ) into the electrolyte. Dendrite formation virtually stopped. Since this technology works best for high capacity Li-ion batteries where both electrodes are pure lithium, one possible application might be big grid battery arrays to support wind and solar power plants.