The humble circuit breaker has protected homes and humans from the damage electricity can cause. The design is largely unchanged since it was originally dreamed up by Thomas Edison back in the 1800s.
Ryan Kennedy, the CEO of Atom Power, believes his solid state circuit breaker is primed to disrupt not just the world of circuit breakers, but also deliver realtime energy monitoring, control, with a host of software to tune it. We spoke with Ryan about the new second generation Atom Switch to learn about how they are helping modernize the safety and control of electricity in homes around the world today.
Ryan Kennedy started his career in the electrical engineering industry 26 years ago as an electrician, wiring up some of the largest buildings in Charlotte, North Carolina. His passion for understanding circuit breakers surfaced in him to the point that he went to college specifically to learn how to design a better circuit breaker. After securing his Electrical Engineering degree, he began designing and managing the installation of massive electrical systems for some of the most complex buildings around.
His fascination with the circuit breaker as a fundamental building block of even the most complex electrical systems in the world hinged around its history. The design had remained largely unchanged since its inception 140 years ago. “The breakers are the weakest link in the chain in terms of safety,” he told me. To do anything more complex, additional components must be cobbled together on top of the breaker. He envisioned a smarter product that could do more, leveraging modern technology. After years of experimentation and design iterations, he and the team at Atom Power created the Atom Switch.
A Faster, Safer, Smarter Circuit Breaker
At its core, the Atom Switch represents a major leap in technology from physical, mechanical circuit breakers to solid state breakers powered by semiconductors and PCBs. Most importantly, this allows for rapid switching at up to 3,000 times faster than traditional mechanical breakers. That is a massive improvement and translates to improved safety as it effectively eliminates the risk of a potentially deadly arc flash.
Vox unpacked the magic behind the Atom Switches, which starts with the semiconductors Atom Power makes itself in North Carolina. Instead of silicon, Atom Power’s semiconductors are made with silicon carbide which allows them to fit into a much smaller footprint. The smaller footprint enables Atom Switches to fit into the same footprint as traditional circuit breakers.
The improve chemistry is also much more resilient than silicon-based semiconductors which improves efficiency, and is much more fault tolerant at high temperatures – a critical factor in passing Underwriters Laboratories’ stringent certification tests.
Upgrading to intelligence-backed semiconductors also gives the Atom Switch the ability to change the amperage at which they trip just by changing a few settings in the AtomOS web app. That is a powerful capability that allows a single 100 amp Atom Switch to be used for just about every circuit in a home or business, thanks to the ability to adjust its disconnect amperage with software. They are rated to handle up to 150,000 amps of power, far more than any residential, commercial, or industrial applications uses today.
Using semiconductors allows Atom Switches to dynamically adjust the current at which they disconnect the circuit, but also the current passed through to the circuit. That allows them to perform the function of motor controllers and other equipment in the space typically relegated to advanced controls devices. Solid state also means the Atom Switch does not have any moving parts. That means less maintenance (by a large margin) and a longer life. These are all wins for commercial and industrial applications where circuit breakers must perform flawlessly over decades to support the business.
Combined with the improvements in the fundamental ability to break circuits and digital intelligence, it is this extensible functionality that will completely simplify and disrupt the architecture of the electric systems used today. Atom Switches can be turned on and off remotely via software, they can provide ANSI relay protection, not just control a motor, but soft-start it, provide energy consumption monitoring and metering, and allow dynamic time-current curve adjustments.
What Does an Atom Switch Look Like?
Ryan’s background in the world of electricians led Atom Power to a design for the Atom Switch that feels very similar to traditional circuit breakers. “It looks like a breaker. You bolt it into a panel board just like every other circuit breaker out there,” he said.
Inside the Atom Switch, things get more exciting. It is a wonderland of Atom Power’s silicon carbide semiconductors. “We also have controllers inside that allow you as the user to do effectively whatever you want with that breaker.”
Each smart breaker has a green and red LED-backed button that indicates the current state of the breaker. An e-ink display displays the amperage it is currently set to trip at, along with other helpful information that can be changed dynamically from the AtomOS webapp. What’s great about e-ink is that it will continue displaying information even if the power to the entire panel cuts out. Not only was that a UL requirement, it is extremely functional in this particular application.
Essentially, they install the same, look similar, but in terms of operation, the software behind the scenes opens up a completely new world of possibilities. “You can change things with the software that you used to have to change with hardware,” Ryan said.
Enabling The Low Carbon Ecosystem of Today
Atom Power’s new and improved multitool of a circuit breaker isn’t just good news for big companies, manufacturing plants, skyscrapers, and rich people. It has the potential to transform the way we implement renewable energy generation, energy storage, and electric vehicles into our local grids.
One early use case of the Atom Switch is to use it as an EVSE, also known as an electric vehicle charger. Sound strange? It might not make sense on the surface, but when you realize an EVSE is essentially just an apparatus that enables the connection of an electric vehicle to a home charging circuit with intelligent starting and stopping built in, it begins to make a bit more sense. The Atom Switch has all that functionality and more. We’ll dig into using Atom Switches as EV chargers in a follow up piece.
The ability to dynamically change the point at which a breaker trips, measure power consumption or generation, and adjust current-time curves also has massive implications when it comes to renewables and energy storage. A local utility can partner with a single provider like Atom Power to tap into the distributed energy generation and storage resources of a community or massive commercial or industrial facility, so it can get very interesting very quickly.
The ability to see what generation looks like at any given second and to control those resources is unprecedented. Atom Power’s connected, intelligent, dynamic switches have the potential to do this and far more. This isn’t just something dreamed up in the labs of Atom Power in North Carolina. It’s something utilities are now asking for and it is getting some serious attention. Just look at Atom Power’s investors. Three of the four major manufacturers of circuit breakers – ABB, Siemens, and Eaton – are all early investors in Atom Power. That speaks volumes about the potential to disrupt the antiquated world of circuit breakers and power distribution.
Low Hanging Fruit
Ryan Kennedy isn’t shy when it comes to the potential of his Atom Switches. “What’s happened here is that there’s been an architectural shift.” He believes his new tech will usher in a new age of electrical systems, all based on his solid state switches. Atom Power’s Atom Switches tick all the boxes for a next generation circuit breaker that’s faster, smarter, and safer than legacy circuit breakers and that is just the beginning.
“We build 100 amp, three phase, 50 amp three phase and two-pole variants of that,” Kennedy said. “We have some great customers with terrific applications that we’re selling into today.”
They are already producing Atom Switches and have secured about 20 commercial and industrial (C&I) customers. “Our space is primarily C&I because that’s where the value proposition is the strongest.” Atom Switches themselves are around $2,400 each, and while that’s near the top end of the price range for even the most robust industrial circuit breakers out there, the functionality they bring to the table quickly stacks up.
Atom Power’s Atom Switches represent a paradigm shift in not just the world of circuit breakers, but in the world of electrical systems that stretches all the way from single family homes up to the largest of industrial facilities in the world. They are still in the early days of production, but as the early investments in Atom Power from ABB, Siemens, and Eaton demonstrate, the product clearly stands on its own.
Looking forward in the future, Atom Power plans to scale the product down for residential applications. “Our breaker is scalable up and down to C&I, residential or the largest industrial application.”