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Digital circuit breaker's applications include HVAC equipment, EV chargers and more

image credit: © Atom Power
Peter Key's picture
Freelance Writer, Editor, Consultant Self-employed

I've been a business journalist since 1985 when I received an MBA from Penn State. I covered energy, technology, and venture capital for The Philadelphia Business Journal from 1998 through 2013....

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  • Jun 29, 2020

During his years in the construction business Ryan Kennedy had many different positions, from electrician to project manager. One thing that drove him crazy in all of them was hooking up the major components of buildings’ heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems. In addition to the feed and circuit breakers, they required a wide range of equipment to control them, making providing the circuits to them very costly and time-consuming.

Kennedy hopes his past pain will be his present gain. He's the CEO of Atom Power, a Charlotte, N.C., company that has developed digital circuit breaker technology that can simplify the process of installing HVAC equipment and other machinery by replacing everything but the feed.

In addition to protecting the equipment to which it's connected, Atom Power’s technology can enable the owners and/or managers of the equipment to remotely control and get information from it. The technology also can adjust the amperage of the Atom Power circuit breaker feeding the equipment so that the amperage matches what the equipment is actually doing, as well as switch the equipment’s power source depending on its power needs.

Atom Power was founded by Kennedy and its chief technology officer, Denis Kouroussis, in 2014, and hit a major milestone last year when its digital circuit breaker was listed by Underwriters Laboratories.

Earlier this month, the company raised $17.75 million in a Series B round that brought the total amount invested in Atom Power to $23 million. Investors in the round included two investment firms — Valor Equity Partners and Atreides Management — and two industrial firms — Rockwell Automation and ABB Group, which invested through its venture capital unit, ABB Technology Ventures. ABB had previously invested in Atom Power, as had Siemens and Eaton. All three companies make circuit breakers.

In a phone conversation a few weeks ago, Kennedy said he saw the need for a digital circuit breaker when he worked on large commercial electrical projects. His initial idea was that circuit breakers ought to be able to be controlled remotely so they could perform multiple tasks, including load shedding, demand management, energy management and transfer switching. What he came to realize was that the best way to enable them to be controlled remotely was to digitize them — change them from electro-mechanical devices to semiconductor-based ones. That shift, he said, doesn’t just allow them to provide better control of lights or motors; it allows them to provide full visibility into — and full control of — anything they’re applied to.

Making the shift wasn’t easy. To do it, Atom Power had to make its semiconductors from silicon carbide rather than just silicon. That allows them to be smaller, more efficient and more fault tolerant at high temperatures than semiconductors made from silicon. That, in turn, allows Atom Power’s circuit breakers, which it calls Atom Switches, to operate much faster than traditional circuit breakers, even anticipating and reacting to faults before they happen.

In addition to Atom Switches, Atom Power markets Atom Panels, which resemble traditional breaker boxes and can be used to house multiple Atom Switches, and Atom OS, the software for controlling Atom Panels and Atom Switches. Together, the company says, all three comprise “the fastest power distribution system in existence.”

Atom Power initially is targeting the commercial and industrial markets because of their size and because, Kennedy said, they have “the most pain points to address.”

The company also has written an application note on how its products can be used by operators of office or apartment buildings that want to put in large numbers of EV chargers for their tenants and Kennedy said it plans to issue a product update later this year for the EV charging market.

Atom Power could get some help in the EV charging market from one of its investors. ABB makes a wide range of EV charging products itself and has invested in several EV charging startups.

Prior to getting its UL certification, Atom Power did some work with distributed energy resources, but Kennedy said the company hasn’t sold into that market since. Despite that, he thinks its products are a natural fit for home solar customers because they can act as a high-tech transfer switch.

Atom Power’s products also could have applications for utilities because no changes have to be made to them to scale them. In that respect, Kennedy said, Atom Switches are like EV batteries — making bigger ones just involves linking more of them together. The same software that controls one can be used to control a thousand.

“You can basically build anything you want,” he said. “It’s a sandbox for the electrification world.”

Atom Power plans to let others play in its sandbox. In addition to marketing its products itself, it plans to offer them as a platform that original equipment manufacturers and others can customize for their own markets.

“We’ve had companies say, ‘How can we license the technology and build our own technology for our own customers?’” Kennedy said.



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