Our nation needs a more reliable and resilient 21st-century electric power system—one that can be monitored more closely in real time to predict potential disruptions and enable operators to respond quickly before serious problems occur.
Paul Ohodnicki, a 34-year-old research scientist with the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, is developing sensors that will play a pivotal role in improving the reliability and safety of the power grid as well as other critical elements of the country’s energy infrastructure.
Ohodnicki’s work centers on the creation of sensors using high-performance materials that can accurately monitor electrical assets such as power transformers, power plant generation, natural gas pipelines, and oil and gas drilling operations. The materials selected for use in these sensors are unique because they can withstand high temperatures, high pressure and corrosive environments while still performing the desired function where conventional technologies either cannot survive, or are too costly to effectively deploy.
Cynthia Powell, the NETL’s recently retired executive director for research and innovation, said Ohodnicki “puts together combinations of materials for sensors that will operate in severe environments and across a whole spectrum of energy applications.”
“His work is poised to revolutionize monitoring and controls for the power industry,” Powell said. “Ultimately, that will help lower electricity bills for the public and reduce the environmental impact by making energy systems safer and more efficient.”
Ohodnicki’s sensors, for example, have the potential to predict disruptions of electrical assets on the power grid such as large power transformers and allow operators to intervene before breakdowns take place. These advanced sensors also hold the promise of identifying problems with natural gas pipelines to prevent leaks and dangerous emissions and to withstand extreme downhole pressures and temperatures while monitoring oil and gas drilling operations.
“Instead of routine inspections or some expensive technique, we’re looking to develop sensors that allow operators to act before a transformer or other equipment fails,” Ohodnicki said.
In addition, Ohodnicki is working on a number of other technologies to develop advanced materials and components for power inductors and industrial motors, and for solar energy to be integrated into the power grid. He and his colleagues also have developed sensors to probe temperature and chemical reactions inside high-temperature fuel cells to optimize efficiency and extend their lifetime, two key challenges preventing broader deployment of solid oxide fuel cell technology.
The extensive work of Ohodnicki and his colleagues has resulted in a large portfolio of patented and patent-pending technologies for the power industry that could be commercialized and widely used in the years ahead.
David Alman, an associate director at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, said Ohodnicki combines a high level of academic research with an understanding of how to apply that work to “solve problems and develop solutions to meet industrial needs.”
One need is for increased energy efficiency, which requires regulating temperatures and pressure in electric generating plants, Alman said.
“To have better controls, you need sensing technology to know what is happening,” he said. “Paul’s work on the new sensor technology will result in more efficient power generation.”
Geraldo Nojima, a scientist with Eaton Corporation, described Ohodnicki as “an excellent engineer and scientist who has the passion to develop solutions that will allow us to use energy more responsibly, more efficiently and more cleanly.”
“He recognizes the need to work across different sciences, fields and experts, and he is also a great leader,” said Nojima. “He develops material at the micro level, and then as a leader, he goes to the macro level to bring in people from other areas and disciplines to make sure they understand and catch the vision.”
Ohodnicki went to work at the Department of Energy laboratory in 2010 to oversee federal research projects awarded to universities and businesses, most of which were designed to help the fossil fuel industry. With expertise in materials science, electrical engineering and engineering physics, the young scientist saw the need for new and broader areas of basic research, and in the past six years, has built teams of scientists who are developing cutting-edge technology that goes well beyond his original mandate.
Ohodnicki said his work has allowed him to have a broad perspective on issues affecting the energy industry and to move technology forward in collaboration with academic and commercial partners across the country.
“I can do things in the federal service that are just not possible anywhere else,” Ohodnicki said. “Working for the benefit of the country and moving technology forward—it’s a real privilege to be a part of it.”