Los Alamos Startup Tibbar Plasma Technologies Takes New Look At Edison’s Lost Cause

Tibbar prototype. Courtesy photo

Rick Nebel, owner of Tibbar Plasma Technologies. Courtesy photo
Los Alamos Daily Post

There is an unresolved electrical affair that goes back more than a century to the so-called “War of Currents” between Thomas Alva Edison, the celebrated American inventor and businessman and Nicholas Tesla, a Serbian immigrant, known in his time as a “mad scientist,” and in ours as a visionary.

The latest in electric cars are called Teslas for good reason. Edison, of course, invented the light bulb, but he also invented recording devices for sound and motion pictures, not to mention a whole system for generating and distributing a very low voltage, direct current (DC) electricity that would make his light bulb safe and reliable and an early commercial success.

Tesla came to the United States expressly to work with Edison, which he did for a while, before launching his own ideas, which would include developing a rival electric system, known as alternating current (AC).

Tibbar prototype. Courtesy photo

Ghosts of this classic feud may be cheered to hear the news recently that a Los Alamos technology startup company, Tibbar Plasma Technologies, was selected for a $3.5 million ARPA-E award to develop new plasma-based AC-DC electrical transformers for High Voltage DC Electrical Transmission.

“Edison was pushing DC, and Tesla came along with AC,” said Rick Nebel, owner of Tibbar Plasma Technologies. “Tesla had only one advantage over Edison — to ship long distance you want high voltage with low current,” which is what AC could deliver.  

George Westinghouse began building an AC system that stepped up the voltage to cover long distances and then stepped it back down for local purposes, using a new invention known as a transformer. Westinghouse bought many of Tesla’s patents for his integrated AC system.

Over time, and despite a competition marked by low-blows and dirty tricks from the declining DC companies, the Westinghouse/Tesla/AC version turned out to be more efficient, and eventually even the electric company that Edison founded adopted it, in a merger that created General Electric.

“Edison didn’t have a way to adjust voltages with DC power,” Nebel said. “But if we had a cheap way to transfer voltages on DC to start with we wouldn’t have to have AC.”

A veteran theoretical plasma physicist who retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory eight years ago, Nebel has been traveling this week, looking for four more full-time staffers with the right kind of adventurous spirit to pursue a quest that is by nature high risk and high gain.

What has happened is that other advantages of DC power have become more apparent as new conditions and needs arise. An article on the Energy.gov web page last year on the Edison-Tesla competition summarized some of the newly emerging factors in this changing paradigm: Today our electricity is still predominantly powered by alternating current, but computers, LEDs, solar cells and electric vehicles all run on DC power. And methods are now available for converting direct current to higher and lower voltages. Since direct current is more stable, companies are finding ways of using high voltage direct current (HVDC) to transport electricity long distances with less electricity loss.

“Long distance transmission is starting to go to DC,” Nebel said, adding that AC is only good for about 400 miles at best, because the current radiates and dissipates faster over longer distances, while DC is good for 800 miles easily and experimentally up to 1,200 miles.

The ability to cross such long distances has implications for remote renewable power generation like wind and solar farms in West Texas and New Mexico that don’t have any customers within 400 miles.

“If they had this kind of capability, they could send power to big cities in the East as well as California,” Nebel said. And being able to significantly reduce the cost for doing that has potential for a very rewarding upside.

Tibbar has a prototype of a transformer they use for testing. “It’s not entirely what we want to build but we’re taking data on this right now,” Nebel said. “We’ve done about 1,500 discharges over the last year and a half. We can fire every 15 minutes, putting AC in and looking at the secondary transformer to see what comes out.”

Nebel said winning the grant was miraculous in more ways than one. Not only was it highly unlikely, but there were 2,000 applications for 41 awards. “The success rate was 1.3 percent,” he said “That’s usually pretty bad for grants, but this was extreme.”

There was one more all but impossible hurdle. Nebel said they began the application process with a concept paper, which earned them a chance to submit a full proposal. But on the day after they got the invitation, he had to check himself into the intensive care unit at Los Alamos Medical Center.

“We literally started writing this proposal from the intensive care unit at LAMC,” he said. “I had sepsis, among other diseases. It was very serious.”

With the help of friends, the proposal was written and the award was won. “I’m just fortunate to be here, let alone the contract,” Nebel said.

Tibbar Plasma Technologies has open employment opportunies in the DailyPost classified section here.