Atom Power is bringing circuit breakers into the 21st century, combining software and connectivity to create the first digital circuit breaker certified by Underwriters Laboratories, which sets industry safety standards for consumer products.
Atom Power’s solid-state circuit breakers allow for a number of applications that aren’t possible with today’s circuit breakers, which operate under the same mechanical principles they have for nearly a century and a half. For one thing, they are able to shut off much more quickly–16,000 times more quickly, according to the company. That’s a key safety feature, as the speed in which a circuit can be shut down can prevent fires and explosions.
The Charlotte-based startup’s products allow for power flow and management to be routed remotely from a computer, rather than requiring a technician to manually change switches. That’s of key importance for managing buildings as they get power from more sources, such as renewables, rather than just the grid. It also enables building engineers to be more nimble when handling changes to the power load—such as a row of electric cars charging in a parking lot.
Another advantage of digital circuit breakers is that you only have to manufacture one circuit breaker, notes Kennedy, because the amperage of the breaker can be changed via software. “That’s a huge benefit in the distribution world,” he said. “Most customers need breakers between 15 amps and 100 amps, and you have to build 100 breaker types that fit into the range. We only have to build one.”
The limitations of mechanical circuit breakers have been apparent to CEO and cofounder Ryan Kennedy for a long time. He began his career out of high school in the early 1990s, working as an electrician for large commercial buildings. It was at that time he had an experience that led to him founding Atom Power decades later. “I had an electrical system blow up on me, and it looked like a fireball I barely got out of,” he said. “That got me thinking about breakers.”
After working as an electrician for about five years, Kennedy went to college and obtained a degree in electrical engineering. During his course of study, he learned about the potential for large semiconductors that are capable of switching circuits on and off incredibly quickly, which got him again thinking about circuit breakers—even to the point where he built a rough prototype of a digital circuit breaker in 2004. “It wasn’t that efficient,” he chuckled.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, in 2013, that Atom Power really started to take shape. That was when Kennedy reconnected with Atom Power’s cofounder and CTO, Denis Kouroussis at a trade show. The two had known each other previously, and during their reunion they began talking about the possibilities of semiconductors. That led to them getting together to build prototypes of digital circuit breakers—and they quickly became enamored of the potential applications.
“They did more than we expected,” said Kennedy. “They could interrupt power and faults way faster. They could transfer power. They could tell you what they were doing. They could see their environment and change themselves. We founded Atom Power based on that.”
The company has so far raised about $10 million in financing, according to Kennedy, and has preorders that the company is ramping up production to meet this Spring. But with the UL listing, he said, it will likely raise more money in 2020 in order to go to market on a broader scale. “We’ve been pretty scrappy so far.”