Dartmouth engineers develop power line de-icing system

Dartmouth engineering professor and entrepreneur Victor Petrenko and his colleagues at Dartmouth and at Ice Engineering LLC in Lebanon have invented a way to cheaply and effectively keep ice off power lines.

The new proprietary technology is called a variable resistance cable (VRC) de-icing system. With minor cable modifications plus some off-the-shelf electronics, the system switches the electrical resistance of a standard power line from low to high. The high resistance automatically creates heat to melt ice build-up or keep it from forming in the first place.

“The beauty of the VRC system is that it’s fully customizable and is an affordable addition to the current manufacturing and installation process,” said Gabriel Martinez, Ice Engineering’s vice president who studied under Petrenko while earning his master’s degree in engineering sciences from Dartmouth. “And it works without causing any service interruption whatsoever.”

According to Petrenko, “the technology builds on many years of research in materials science, power electronics and ice physics with my colleagues at Dartmouth, such as Professor Charles Sullivan, an expert in power electronics and a co-inventor of the VRC de-icer.”

Petrenko is founder, chief technology officer and chairman of Ice Engineering, which planned to install and test a full-scale VRC system prototype on a section of power line in Orenburg, Russia, in late January. The company also is negotiating full-scale installations of VRC in other regions of Russia and in China.

Martinez said the changes in manufacturing and installation required to implement the VRC system would result in a less than 10 percent increase in overall cost. Since utility companies normally replace 3 percent of their cables every year, the system could be installed as part of the regularly scheduled maintenance process and still achieve a significant portion of the installation by the time the next major storm hits, he said.

He added that the life span of the de-icing system would match or exceed the life span of the utility cable — approximately 30 to 50 years. The system would pay for itself during the next storm by practically eliminating the cost of fixing downed cables and power outages due to ice and snow, Martinez said.

Another benefit of the VRC system is that utility companies using the system would have full control over its functionality, he said. Time, temperature and location can all be adjusted manually or set and controlled automatically with electronic sensors.