Two researches at Texas A&M University have developed a diagnostic software for monitoring electrical equipment to prevent outages and even wildfires. Getty Images

The threat of wildfires is on most people's minds as Australia suffers from devastating, uncontrollable fires in its southeastern region. While Australia's fires are alleged to be caused by natural occurrences, some, like the California wildfires of late 2019, are caused by electrical malfunctions and sparks

Engineers at Texas A&M University have found a solution for preventing these electricity-caused wildfires — and the subsequently caused electrical outages — with their diagnostic software called Distribution Fault Anticipation, or DFA. The software can interpret variations in the electrical current on utility circuits — usually caused by issues with the equipment — that can cause outages or spark fires.

A Texas A&M research team — spearheaded by B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and research professor Carl L. Benner — is behind the DFA software.

The technology has been tested at over a dozen utilities in Texas over the past six years, according to a news release, and now two Californian utility companies — Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — will be testing DFA. In 2018, a state law from the California Public Utilities Commission began requiring utilities to submit Wildfire Mitigation Plans, per the release.

Up next: The researchers are preparing to test the software in Australia and New Zealand.

DFA's specific algorithms are based on and refined through 15 years of research. Russell and Benner liken DFA to the diagnostic tools cars use, and, comparatively, the utilities industry is way behind the times.

"Utility systems operate today like my 1950s Chevy," Russell says in the release. "They have some fuses and breakers and things, but they really don't have anything diagnostic. They don't have that computer under the hood telling them what's about to go wrong."

B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, led the research at A&M. Photo via A&M

Normal wear and tear on electrical equipment is inevitable, but it's hard for inspectors to visually see this damage. Until this DFA software, utilities had no choice but to react to failures or outages, rather than put money into prevention. The software allows for these companies to better see what could potentially cause issues. And, now with the ability to factor in dry conditions and weather, the software can even predict potential wildfires.

"Power is being turned off with nothing known to be wrong with a given circuit," Russell says in the release. "Utilities need a crystal ball, something telling them which circuit is going to start a fire tomorrow because it is already unhealthy. We are kind of that crystal ball."

DFA has the potential to prevent outages and devastation caused by wildfires, and it also is a huge economic solution for utilities companies — especially the ones reeling from the recent fires in California.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which is testing nine DFA devices, is the state's largest utility company and recently filed for bankruptcy due to a near $100 billion required from settlements following recent fires. By comparison, a DFA device costs only $15,000, according to the release.

"DFA is a new tool, allowing utilities to transform their operating procedures to find and fix problems before catastrophic failures." Russell says in the release. "Utilities operators need real time situational awareness of the health of their circuits…..DFA does that."

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Houston university teams up with angel group to reach, upskill future investors

Through a new partnership with the Houston Angel Network and Houston Exponential, the University of Houston will help cultivate startup investors among UH alumni.

The partnership will bolster accredited early-stage investors and accelerate opportunities for aspiring startup investors, the university says in a news release.

“Investors play a vital role in the startup ecosystem and this initiative gives our alumni a rapid path to becoming angels. Our vision is to activate more investors with deep connections to UH who support world-class innovation in our community and beyond,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the university’s vice president for energy and innovation.

The partnership is based at UH’s Technology Bridge. Tech Bridge promotes tech commercialization, industrial partnerships, and startup development.

“Our founders are launching many exciting new companies, but they need better access to capital,” says Tanu Chatterji, associate director of startup development at UH. “This partnership will help us mobilize angel investors who want to support these innovators with knowledge and financial resources.”

UH alumni interested in participating in the new partnership should contact Chatterji at tchatte@uh.edu.

The angel network will lend its investing expertise to early-stage businesses in tech, energy, life sciences, consumer, and aerospace sectors. Meanwhile, tech startup incubator Houston Exponential will provide support for entrepreneurs and the startup ecosystem.

“This relationship is a testament to the collaborative spirit of Greater Houston’s business and academic communities,” says Mitra Miller, vice president of the Houston Angel Network, an organization for early-stage investors. “By leveraging the combined expertise and resources of our three organizations, we can increase the flow of early-stage capital in our region in support of great innovators and high-growth enterprises.”

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential, says the new initiative “promises to be a roadmap for investment education, and support for aspiring investors and entrepreneurs alike.”

“An active and educated investor base is an essential component of a thriving startup ecosystem,” says Branch.

Houston lab sees progress with breakthrough light-harvesting processes

Hi, tech

A groundbreaking Rice University lab has made further strides in its work to make harvesting light energy more efficient and stable.

Presented on the cover of a June issue of Science, a study from Rice engineer Aditya Mohite's lab uncovered a method to synthesize a high-efficiency perovskite solar cell, known as formamidinium lead iodide (FAPbI3), converting them into ultrastable high-quality photovoltaic films, according to a statement from Rice. Photovoltaic films convert sunlight into electricity.

The new process makes solar cells that are about 10 times more durable than traditional methods.

“Right now, we think that this is state of the art in terms of stability,” Mohite said in a statement. “Perovskite solar cells have the potential to revolutionize energy production, but achieving long-duration stability has been a significant challenge.”

The change come from "seasoning" the FAPbI3 with 2D halide perovskites crystals, which the Mohite lab also developed a breakthrough synthesis process for last year

The 2D perovskites helped make the FAPbI3 films more stable. The study showed that films with 2D perovskites deteriorated after two days of generating electricity, while those with 2D perovskites had not started to degrade after 20 days.

“FAPbI3 films templated with 2D crystals were higher quality, showing less internal disorder and exhibiting a stronger response to illumination, which translated as higher efficiency," Isaac Metcalf, a Rice materials science and nanoengineering graduate student and a lead author on the study, said in the statement.

Additionally, researchers say their findings could make developing light-harvesting technologies cheaper, and can also allow light-harvesting panels to be lighter weight and more flexible.

"Perovskites are soluble in solution, so you can take an ink of a perovskite precursor and spread it across a piece of glass, then heat it up and you have the absorber layer for a solar cell,” Metcalf said. “Since you don’t need very high temperatures ⎯ perovskite films can be processed at temperatures below 150 Celsius (302 Fahrenheit) ⎯ in theory that also means perovskite solar panels can be made on plastic or even flexible substrates, which could further reduce costs.”

Mohite adds this has major implications for the energy transition at large.

“If solar electricity doesn’t happen, none of the other processes that rely on green electrons from the grid, such as thermochemical or electrochemical processes for chemical manufacturing, will happen,” Mohite said. “Photovoltaics are absolutely critical.”

The Mohite lab's process for creating 2D perovskites of the ideal thickness and purity was published in Nature Synthesis last fall. At the time, Mohite said the crystals "hold the key to achieving commercially relevant stability for solar cells."

About a year ago, the lab also published its work on developing a scalable photoelectrochemical cell. The research broke records for its solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency rate.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with a health tech data scientist, a CEO celebrating an international expansion, and a founder who won a big DOE prize.

Angela Wilkins, chief data scientist at Starling Medical

Angela Wilkins joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the intersection of data and health care. Photo courtesy

When most people hear about Houston startup Starling Medical, they might think about how much potential the medical device company has in the field of urinalysis diagnostics. But that's not quite where Angela Wilkins's head went.

Wilkins explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that when she met the company's co-founders, Hannah McKenney and Drew Hendricks, she recognized them as very promising startup leaders taking action on a real health care problem. Starling's device can collect urine and run diagnostics right from a patient's toilet.

"It was one of those things where I just thought, 'They're going to get a bunch of data soon,'" Wilkins says. "The opportunity is just there, and I was really excited to come on and build their AI platform and the way they are going to look at data."

For about a year, Wilkins supported the startup as an adviser. Now, she's working more hands on as chief data officer as the company grows. Read more.

Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon

Amperon officially expanded in Europe. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based, AI-powered electricity forecasting and analytics services company Amperon Holdings is live in Europe. The expansion, which Co-Founder and CEO Sean Kelly previously told InnovationMap about, is official, the company announced this month. In addition to the expansion, Amperon announced Jon Ecker as general manager, Europe, and Kelsey Hultberg as executive vice president, communications, and chief of staff.

Now, European companies that buy and sell energy in the renewable energy producers, financial institutions, and utilities markets can leverage Amperon's platform of AI and machine learning technologies to access short- and long-term forecasts for their individual meters and generation assets.

“As a warmer-than-expected June ushers in a hot summer, and increasing uncertainty looms for the calmer fall months due to the influx of wind and solar generation, we are eager to assist our European customers in navigating the power market volatility caused by heat waves, extreme weather events, and shifts in power usage across the region,” Kelly says in a news release. Read more.

Laureen Meroueh, founder of Hertha Metals

Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. Photo via LinkedIn

Four startups from across the country won over $160,000 in cash prizes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions earlier this month, and a Houston-area company claimed the top prize.

Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. The program honors and supports clean energy innovators nominated by clean technology business incubators.

Hertha Metals was founded by Laureen Meroueh, a mechanical engineer and materials scientist, in 2022. Read more.