When failure leads to success

As power poles age throughout the decades, the danger of them failing increases—and so, too, does the risk of electrocutions and power outages. Lines companies are not always able to predict when poles are about to fail—a problem that one Victoria University of Wellington researcher is working with Viclink to solve.

Broken power pole lying on the ground

“Historically, timber pole failures are common so there are now tools available that can detect rot inside a wooden pole, and therefore predict its potential failure,” says Joseph Bailey, an engineer at the University’s Robinson Research Institute. “It’s a lot harder to see what’s going on inside concrete poles, so we’ve developed a new technology that will enable pole inspectors to see what’s going on inside concrete as clearly as they currently can with wood.”

Joseph says the greatest hazard associated with normal reinforced concrete poles is corrosion of the steel inside. Any water that penetrates a power pole, through a break or crack in the concrete, will reach the steel and cause corrosion—and, inevitably, failure of the pole.

“Currently, the only signs are rusty water leaking out of a pole, or rusty concrete falling off. But sometimes the worst rust, and therefore the most damaging to the structure of the pole, is on the inside, unseen.”

Likening the new technology to an X-Ray, Joseph says that in the same way an X-Ray can show you the bone inside a leg, their tool can show corrosion—i.e. rust—inside concrete.

“Technically, you could actually X-Ray the poles,” he says. “But you would need bulky, not particularly portable, equipment to do so—and then of course there are the radiation health risks.”

Joseph’s solution, on the other hand, is portable, safe, and highly effective. He says the method involves creating a magnetic field around the pole, and when electrical current encounters rust, sensors pick up the change in current and the rust is detected. The intellectual property (IP) behind the novel tech involves how they create that magnetic field.

“With Viclink’s help, we have patented a technique which can produce more power than anything similar on the market,” says Joseph. “And more power means stronger signals and therefore more accuracy and detail about the rust inside.”

He says they had already used the method as a non-destructive way to test for rust in insulated pipes.  “But we figured the IP could be used in other applications, to solve different problems, so we sat down with Ashwath Sundaresan, Viclink’s Commercialisation Manager, and talked about other ideas. The concrete pole application made a lot of sense to everyone, so Viclink helped us to successfully apply for KiwiNet’s Emerging Innovator Fund.”

Joseph says the team has been using the commercial pre-seed funding to transition the technology from pipes to concrete pole testing, and to validate the market.

“We’ve been talking with six of New Zealand’s larger distribution companies who manage local lines, and a company in Australia—all of whom can immediately see the benefits of this tech.”

Joseph says that if lines companies can’t accurately predict the safety status of their concrete power pole assets, they often end up replacing poles that may be in perfect working order simply because of their age. “That’s a lot of money that our technology could potentially save them.”

He says the market potential for the idea is global. “Literally any company that uses concrete power poles could benefit from this technology. We’re pretty excited to see where we can take this.”

For more information, email Ashwath Sundaresan or call him on +64 4 463 5412.