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Power plant security, environmental issues reason for grant

April 24, 2008

By Shannon Daily
Staff writer

Three professors in the engineering department have started researching a more efficient way to handle environmental and security issues surrounding power plants.

Through applying computational intelligence to the plants, the researchers hope to provide a better way to control them, said Dr. Robert Marks, a distinguished professor in the engineering department.

The National Science Foundation awarded the men a $330,000 grant on Friday for their research to begin June 1.

"Power plants need to be controlled and the idea is to make it more automatic, more distributed," he said.

Marks will be working with Dr. Ian Gravagne, an assistant professor, and Dr. Kwang Lee, chairman of the engineering department, on the project.

Lee is the principal investigator for the project.

"The buzz on it is that it has to do, of course, with the energy crisis and, too, there's an element in there of anti-terrorist sort of things," Marks said.

The problem the researchers are working to solve lies in the ways different parts of a plant's computer network communicate.

The project will focus on how to control large-scale power plants so they can better adapt to changing conditions on the power grid by creating a network of intelligent agents, Gravagne said in an e-mail to The Baylor Lariat.

"These are essentially computer programs that receive data from the plant or the grid, adjust conditions at the plant if necessary, and talk to each other when necessary," he said.

Because these intelligent agents could physically be far apart from one another, he said, they must be able to coordinate their efforts over sometimes unreliable computer networks.

"This is called 'distributed control,' and an interest of my current research is how distributed control systems can be made reliable and robust," Gravagne said.

One thing power plants must deal with is the demand on power. When an area needs more or less power, the power grid must adjust so that the voltage and frequency remain consistent.

"However, it is not simply a matter of turning a knob. The adjustment process is complicated and sometimes fails spectacularly," Gravagne said. "We are searching for ways to make it more reliable."

This is especially true in an age of renewable resources, he said. A wind farm may produce a lot of power one minute, and nothing five minutes later, leaving traditional power plants to adapt to very large changes on the power grid.

"The volatility, or unpredictability, of power grids is one problem that makes them susceptible to failure, but obviously we want to do everything possible to encourage the growth of renewable electricity generation," Gravagne said.

In terms of security, the researchers are working to distribute control of a plant to many parts of a network, rather than just one computer, that way it can lose one part without losing the ability to function, he said.

"Think of a swarm of ants: you can kill one or even many of them, but the colony will still function," Gravagne said.

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