Scientist aids motor efficiency
Professor emeritus honor for work
By Joe Eskenazi - Daily Planet September 23, 1999
You could say Otto Smith is plugged in.
The UC Berkeley Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor emeritus outdistanced national laboratories, multinational corporations and research foundations, winning a prestigious R&D Magazine100 award for a device that would allow efficient motors to be run on the comparatively rudimentary wiring system used in American homes.
Any world traveler who's ever purchased a costly adapter so they can blow dry their hair in Bremen or plug in the curlers in Coventry understands the variation between electrical outlets in America and the rest of the world.
Yet the oddly sized, rectangular, hexagonal and even oval shaped outlets seen overseas are good for more than extracting money from adapter-consuming American tourists. Assuming you're reading this in any house, dormitory, residential or small commercial building in the nation, a quick inspection of any electrical device within stretching distance will reveal two or perhaps three wires heading into the outlet, with the third carrying no current and serving as a grounding wire. But if you're in a factory, electricity flows in on not two but three wires.
How big is the difference?
That third wire enables the running of economical, efficient "three-phase" engines. Yet with only two wires in your house or apartment, you' re stuck with poorly designed, noisy, and expensive single-phase engines. And anyone who's ever been shocked to see how much of the electricity bill is solely due to the refrigerator understands how inefficient single-phase motors can be.
"Fridges, washing machines, dryers, air conditioners, they're all horrible devices," says Smith, who holds over 30 patents. "They're all single-phase motors, which is the equivalent of a single-piston engine.
" To illustrate the difference between three-phase and single-phase engines, think of two men pushing large boulders. While the three-phase man applies constant pressure to the stone to steadily move it along, the single- phase man moves the boulder by repeatedly running into it, backing up, and running into it again, which as you can well imagine, wastes a lot of his time and energy.
"The motor in a refrigerator goes from absolutely no torque on the shaft to maximum torque 120 times a second," explains · Smith in slightly more technical terms. "That means that half the time, the motor is being wasted. -It costs a lot of money and only delivers half as much torque as if it were symmetrically wound like a three-phase motor.
" With wiping out this waste in mind, Smith invented what he calls the PhaseAble Enabler, which allows high-efficiency three-phase motors to be connected to single-phase lines. Smith estimates that in nations like the United States, China, Australia and Brazil, which feature single-phase wiring in residential homes, his device could save consumers and power companies billions of dollars.
“My enabler to run three-phase motors could have been invented in 1920,” say Smith, who received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1941. “The reason it wasn’t was because we thought energy was free. It didn’t matter how inefficient motors were. Oil was coming out of the ground. Oil was coming out of the ground in single-phase line, Smith's Oklahoma, and around that time gasoline was about 18 cents a gallon. So we wasted it. I grew up in Stillwater, and every night I could look up around the horizon and see five oil wells flaring off millions of dollars of valuable methane. They didn't even think of putting it in a pipe and shipping it to, say, New York.
“If all Air conditioners and refrigerators in America were to use what is already available in three-phase designs and used adapter, over 10 years customers would save billions, “ continues the professor, who picks up his award today at the Chicago ceremony. “Power companies wouldn’t have to generate billions of dollars of electricity, and we wouldn’t have to buy oil from Saudi Arabia to make that kind of electricity.”
In addition to allowing three-phase line, Smith’s enabler can also be used to improve the current performance of three-phase engines, correcting the mechanical failures caused by components that are inefficient,” says Smith.
"In a system where energy is not really paid for and companies are willing to waste it, companies are willing to by components that are inefficient," says Smith.
“Refrigerating, freezing and air conditioning are enormous energy wasters. My goal is to at least make the components efficient.”