ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Blackout Busters: Franklin Medal Winners, Arun Phadke & Jim Thorp

Franklin Medal announcement and video

See the Franklin Institute anouncement and watch the 3-minute video of Phadke and Thorp's accomplishments.

See also the Virginia Tech press release.

Photograph of Arun Phadke and Jim Thorp

Arun Phadke (left) and Jim Thorp (right) have been honored with the 2008 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering.

More than 30 years ago, Jim Thorp, ECE department head, and Arun Phadke, a university distinguished professor emeritus, first teamed up to fight power grid blackouts. Today, their technology and algorithms are used to keep lights on around the world, and they have been honored with the prestigious 2008 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering.

For 184 years, the Franklin Institute has identified men and women from around the world whose contributions have benefited society, advanced science, launched new fields of inquiry, and deepened the understanding of the universe. Previous recipients include Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Max Planck, Enrico Fermi, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright, Marie and Pierre Curie, Guglielmo Marconi, and Jane Goodall.

Phadke and Thorp received the award for “pioneering contribution to the development and application of microprocessor controllers in electric power systems.” Their work has made blackouts less frequent, less intense, and easier to recover from.

Their partnership began in 1976 when Thorp was a professor at Cornell and took a sabbatical to study power systems at American Electric Power (AEP) in New York. There he met Phadke. “We were working on introducing computer applications into the power system,” Phadke recalls. “Jim had a background in controlling systems and we gave him an assignment in computer applications. He was the perfect fit.”

Protection technology

For eight years, Thorp commuted one day a week from Ithaca to New York, working on different projects. At that time, power relays — that shut down local power systems to pro­tect the equipment — were made of electromechanical and solid state components. Thorp and Phadke developed the algorithms needed to replace the bulky machines with microprocessors.

“Many people in the industry said that computers couldn’t do such a heavy, dangerous job — that it couldn’t happen,” says Thorp. “But, of course it has. Today you can’t buy anything but computer relays.” All of today’s power protection systems use Phadke and Thorp’s algorithms in some way.

One of the biggest problems in protecting the power flow along the grid has been getting information from each of the 3,000 power companies involved. “The power companies could tell the voltage and the location of a disturbance, but there was no commonality when we tried to study large blackouts, like along the East Coast in 1965 and 2003, and 1996 on the West Coast,” Phadke explains.

The common measure was time. When the GPS system was being established, Phadke realized it could be used to time stamp all the data in different power systems. “This was a huge idea,” says Thorp. They worked on the concept along with Stan Horowitz of AEP. “We developed the algorithms and proved it could be done theoretically, but AEP did not want to pursue it. ‘Who would want it?’ we were asked?”

Soon after, Phadke came to Virginia Tech and with his students — including Virgilio Centeno, who is now on the ECE faculty — built the first device, which they called a synchron­ized phasor meas­ure­ment unit (PMU). “Our goal was to make very accurate measurements on the power system, no matter how big the network,” Phadke says. The device measures voltages and currents and identifies a precise time and location based on GPS signals.

The first units were installed at several power companies around the country and by 1993, about two dozen firms manufactured the instruments. “The next step was computerizing them in a large network. Hundreds have been installed in this country and may­be a thousand in China, Mexico, Brazil, and Europe.”

Once a critical mass was installed, they started observing new phenomena along the pow­er grid, Thorp says. “We learned that disturbances spread through the system like waves. Here we had a man-made system behaving like earthquakes and tidal waves!”

The big disturbances can have an early warning system along the grid. “They come at hundreds of miles a second. That’s fast, but it’s not the speed of light. Computerized equip­ment can react quickly enough. This makes it possible to protect the system differently,” Thorp says.

The Ultimate Team

Close-up photo of Jim Thorp and Arun Phadke

The pairing of Jim Thorp (left) and Arun Phadke (right) became an ultimate team that has lasted more than 30 years.

How does a team like this survive 30 years? They say the strength of their collaboration relies on their differences. They describe Phadke as an intuitive problem solver and Thorp as the theoretician with a background in control theory, probability and mathematics.

“Arun knows everything about the power system,” Thorp says. “He always has an elegant, direct answer, and I tend to make them more complicated. He has a Richard Feynman-like intuition about things. He’s able to bring groups together and makes things happen,” he adds.

Phadke says, “Jim is very competent in finding out the math that underlies the issue at hand. Not only does he recognize it, but he solves it. It’s remarkable to watch him doing things and realize that, before my eyes, he’s doing something that has probably never been done before.”

As a team and individually, Phadke and Thorp have been very productive. Phadke holds five pat­ents, has authored more than 150 papers and has written or contributed to 22 books.

Thorp holds two patents has authored more than 200 papers. They are both members of the National Academy of Engineering and Fellows of the IEEE and have been honored with many honors and awards.

Thorp retired from Cornell and came to Virginia Tech in 2004, and the two continue their association in closer contact. They have projects and contracts that extend several years into the future.

“There are many more problems to solve,” Thorp says, noting that much of the equipment is more than 40 years old. “As a society, we’ve got to modernize the power system and these measurements are part of the story.”