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Electric fish inspire technology to detect fa -

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Robyn Williams: the physics to stop Victoria's electric grid from crashing. It is a really remarkable tale, and yet another example of the fresh young brains we get from abroad.

Alexe Bojovschi: In the beginning it was all about a spark, an electric spark. That was what we started to investigate. We shortly followed the evolution of the spark to a large electrical discharge. This dynamic process is widely present in the electrical network, and leads to power failure.

The electric fish was one of the inspirational sparks that came along the way. The similarities between the electric fish, the way it communicates, navigates and interacts with its environment and the power network is astonishing. The electric fish generates electrical signals in a similar manner with the power network components. We studied the radiation emitted from electrical discharges and its interactions with the components of the power network. This constituted the cornerstone of what was about to come; a wireless technology for detecting early signs of power failure.

The future was predicted to be electrifying, but how bright will it be? The power networks which are built at least 50 years ago are ageing and deteriorating, just at the time when they are being overloaded with new appliances. These together contribute to the development of sparks. All it takes is a salt deposit or a build-up of lichens to provide a conductive path on an insulator and you enhance the likelihood of electrical discharges.

Maintaining a healthy and reliable power network is paramount in an information era where most of the systems rely on a continuous power supply. The ability to prevent network failure, it has the potential for improving and safeguarding the life of the billions of people.

Internationally this is very important. Last year blackouts left 620 million people in India without power for a couple of days, and cost the US economy more than $120 billion. Electric sparking has been blamed for major bushfires in Australia. The importance of preventing blackouts is immense. Some examples might help. Just imagine yourself being alone in a lift or at home when the lights go off. How would you feel? You might feel terrified, horrified, petrified, you might even feel lost. Not to mention imagine one being in hospital where his life hangs on the continuous power supply. The patented wireless sensing technology that we developed attempts to prevent these types of events from happening.

The system can be mounted to power poles to detect the discharge signature in the power networks. The sensors can be used to locate the fault point by translating the time of arrival of the spark signature into a measure of distance. A company, IND Technology, was established to commercialise the system. This technology is able to detect incipient signs of blackouts to help prevent them.

However, this technology does not imply that it can prevent all types of power failure. Blackouts such as those due to possums hanging onto powerlines, trees falling on the lines and people turning off the main power switch cannot be predicted by this technology. At present it is offering the technology as an early fault detection service to electricity companies in Victoria online 24 hours a day. The system provides a dynamic picture of the health of power networks. Power failure is a worldwide issue, so the company has the potential to expand globally.

Robyn Williams: Alexe, did you say fish in the beginning?

Alexe Bojovschi: Yes, an electric fish actually.

Robyn Williams: An electric fish. Where did you get the fish from?

Alexe Bojovschi: Actually I studied electric fish, and after that I bought an electric fish. It comes all the way from Ecuador, it's called the black ghost knife. And the way this electric fish navigated the water, they actually have poor eyesight and they use electromagnetic waves to navigate through murky dark waters to detect prey and to avoid objects in their path.

Robyn Williams: And you adapted that knowledge, the physiology of the electric fish, to work out how to eliminate breakdowns, the dark side of the grid.

Alexe Bojovschi: That's right. Actually this system, the technology we developed is very complex. So part of the knowledge we got from the electric fish…so we learned from electric fish how it navigates and how it senses electromagnetic signals, and we adapted it and we used it in our technology.

Robyn Williams: Somehow I've guessed that you don't come originally from Victoria.

Alexe Bojovschi: No, I don't, I come from Romania. I did my PhD in Victoria, and after that my post-doctoral studies at RMIT University where I did this work.

Robyn Williams: And you were in Romania before?

Alexe Bojovschi: Yes, and I was kind of passionate about fish and I used to play and study all kinds of animals, not only fish, but I used to catch fish by hand. It was a Romanian tradition I guess.

Robyn Williams: In the rivers in Romania?

Alexe Bojovschi: Yes indeed.

Robyn Williams: Really!

Alexe Bojovschi: And I caught the electric fish. Actually it's more like an eel, it's very long, and I caught it, I thought it was two fishes, but when I took it out I couldn't pull them apart so I realised it was an eel. It was really amazing.

Robyn Williams: And you learned your English partly from listening to the radio?

Alexe Bojovschi: Yes, I did actually. I started learning actually in a weird way. I like poetry, so I used to read John Keats in English and Romanian and Shakespeare in English and Romanian, Oscar Wilde in English and Romanian. I listened to the radio day and night, even sleeping sometimes.

Robyn Williams: Very good work, thank you so much.

Alexe Bojovschi: Thank you very much.

Robyn Williams: Alexe Bojovschi from Romania via RMIT University. So the next time you see a boy with a pet fish, don't laugh, he may save your life, or your lights.