It is extremely rare to watch a truly innovative product revolutionize an industry. Not some new accessory or incremental improvement of an existing product, but a totally new product based on leading edge technology that precedes a real paradigm shift. Something that forces the industry to reconsider long-standing norms and assumptions regarding capabilities, risks, safety, costs, etc. The development of the Atom Switch and associated product line based on solid-state switching may very well be one of these rare events.

So, what makes the Atom Switch such an innovative breakthrough? The Atom Switch is a circuit breaker that uses semiconductors to interrupt and switch the flow of current instead of the traditional mechanical-based tripping mechanism that other circuit breakers rely on. Both interrupt power during fault conditions and can be manually opened or closed, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is the solid-state switch with integral high-speed current sensing can detect a fault during a sub-cycle and open approximately 16,000 times faster than a mechanical breaker. The result is the elimination of associated low-impedance arc-flash hazards which typically cause the highest destruction. If you don’t believe it, watch the demonstration video at where Ryan Kennedy, Atom Power CEO and co-founder, initiates a phase-to-phase short of a 100A, 480Vac circuit without even a spark.

Elimination of arc-flash hazards is in and of itself a serious game changer. This is even more important to mission critical facilities where many systems and equipment have multiple power sources, a very low tolerance for outages, and the demands of maintaining continuous operation during major anomalies and maintenance activities. But this is just the beginning of how solid-state circuit breakers can change electrical power distribution and control. The inherent capabilities of being able to operate in the sub-cycle time frame along with an on-board programmable controller enables the Atom Switch to also perform surge protection, soft loading (and unloading), re-close ability (for true remote ON/OFF control), and high-speed transfers.

Atom Power was founded in December 2014 and started producing the first viable solid-state switch prototypes in 2015. They have since developed various products including the 3-phase 100A and 800 amp alternating current breakers and 100 amp and 200 amp direct current versions. The breakers must be installed and operated in the Atom Panel using the Atom OS (operating system).

The Atom Panel not only provides a mounting and wire management system, it also includes all the networking and communications components that run on the Atom OS. Atom Power is currently working on “Generation 2” products that bring some of the previously out-sourced components in-house thereby allowing manufacturing costs to come down, efficiencies to go up, and move the product from “beta” into mass production. Atom Power is also working on developing products for medium-voltage (i.e., 4160Vac) systems. Atom Power has had the Atom Switch successfully tested to handle 100,000 amp interrupting capacity and they believe, given the opportunity to test this, that it could achieve an interrupting capacity of 200,000 amps. The products are being tested in third-party labs to attain Underwriters Laboratory’s UL labels including UL489 EMC tests.

The Atom Switch uses solid state circuitry (in their case, a silicon-carbide (SiC) semiconductor array) to control current flow through a low-voltage digital gate drive controlled by a microprocessor. Since it does not require a mechanical mechanism to physically open or close, it thus eliminates many of the failures associated with traditional breakers. Where a traditional circuit breaker may allow for a few thousand operations or less, the Atom Switch can be operated reliably for millions of operations. It even has a self-test mode where if performs a “daily-routine” to shut-off and immediately turn back on to verify the internal semiconductor and “driving” operation. This off-then-back-on again test happens so fast (sub-cycle/microseconds) that it is transparent to the load and endusers. Once the Atom Switch has been commanded open via the solid-state circuitry, a manual air-gap break can be performed (similar to racking out a breaker) so that the breaker can be locked and tagged in a de-energized state. Atom Power has researched the industry standards and codes and is confident that existing standards and codes do not need to be revised to allow for use of their products.

So, what’s holding back the industry “revolution” and why isn’t the industry embracing this new technology? There are two main reasons as far as I can tell:

  • Initial costs
  • Unfamiliar technology

The biggest hurdle is of course costs. An Atom Switch currently costs approximately five times what a traditional circuit breaker costs of similar size. A large focus of Atom Power is to reduce the manufacturing costs of their products and they have dropped the costs by half since 2016. As the products go into full scale production it is expected further cost reductions will occur based on efficiencies of scale. There may be some indirect cost savings associated with the Atom solution where their “circuit breaker” products also function as power quality meters, automatic transfer switches, variable-speed drives, etc., and eliminate the need for purchasing these costly devices and equipment.

The next biggest hurdle is the lack of understanding by industry in general that Atom Power exists, much less what their innovative product represents. That is not to say that the industry hasn’t taken any notice. Consider who has invested in the development of Atom Power (Siemens, ABB, and Eaton to name a few) and it is apparent that some of the legacy power distribution manufacturers are not only paying attention but vying to be part of the game. Still, there are very few engineering firms that are comfortable with specifying this new technology and endusers and owners have not pushed to have this technology considered in their capital projects. Couple this with the reluctance of most mission critical operations to embrace leading-edge, “unproven” solutions (i.e., to not be a “beta” site), and essentially we are waiting on “who will go first.”

A somewhat lesser challenge lies in the perceived difficulties of installing the Atom Power solution into existing facilities. You can’t just replace a traditional breaker with an Atom Switch. You would need to replace the entire existing distribution panel and associated breakers with a new Atom Panel populated with Atom Switches. This in no way means the Atom Power product line can’t be deployed on retrofits, but it is more likely the big breakthrough will occur when a new, large greenfield (or possible brownfield) project rolls out a deployment throughout an entire facility.

So what else is special about the Atom Power solution? Well, how about the following capabilities (and remember we are comparing this to a typical electrical distribution panel with “dumb” breakers):

  • Each Atom Switch is individually programmable and adjustable (via the free Atom OS software) so you can change the time-current curve and breaker settings. You can make the 100-amp switch operate as a 15-amp, 50-amp, or any amp rating equal to or below the 100-amp maximum rating.

  • An entire facility coordination study can be done on a laptop and then downloaded through the Atom OS Network and all the breaker settings and configurations get implemented without leaving the office. Atom Switches have adjustable time-current curves (amperage vs. time) via the Atom OS so you can easily overlay and coordinate breaker responses both upstream and downstream to ensure one doesn’t trip before the other. This is accomplished directly from the breaker screen without the need for complex short-circuit coordination study software.

  • Each Atom Switch can be commanded open or closed either local-manually, remote-manually, or automatically (via the Atom OS) based on external scenarios such as load-shedding, sequential re-closing, time-of-day operations, etc.

  • Combining the operation of a pair (or group of) Atom Switches via the Atom OS allows these “breaker pairs” to function as automatic transfer switches (ATSs) or even static transfer switches (STSs) with inherent arc-flash mitigation.

  • Each Atom Switch can be user-customized to perform soft-starting/soft-loading similarly to a motor soft-starter. They can also perform soft-stopping/soft-unloading. Check out the demonstration video.

  • Each Atom Switch can perform motor overload protection.

  • Each Atom Switch incorporates high-speed data sensing which can be monitored, alarmed, trended, etc. as a power quality meter.

  • Oh, and did I mention the mitigation of arc-flash hazards?

From all that I have researched and learned about Atom Power and the Atom product line this is a truly innovative technology that has the potential to radically change the electrical power distribution industry. Solid-state circuit protection and switching can fundamentally change how we distribute power by enabling complete digital metering and control of circuit breakers. The Atom Power solution provides a level of control over the electrical distribution system in ways never seen before while also making it safer, simpler, and more reliable. As the costs come down, the word gets out, larger capacity breakers get developed and adoption starts, I say let the revolution begin.