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The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is to fund a new, high-tech power grid for New York's financial centres which will use advanced superconductor technology.

DHS feds have named the new system "Project Hydra". The allusion is to the Lernaean Hydra, the terrible nine-headed monster of Greek legend which was hard to kill because whenever a head was cut off it would grow two new ones.

This is because Project Hydra will use "surge-suppressing superconductor power grid technology" to produce "Secure Super Grids™", according to prime contractor American Superconductor.

"Much like the mythical Greek monster that grew back multiple heads when one was severed, multiple paths for electricity flow will be created in power grids to ensure system reliability if circuits were to be disrupted," the company said.

"We have asked American Superconductor and Consolidated Edison to demonstrate superconductor solutions in New York City that will serve to keep our centres of commerce online under all conditions – including grid events related to severe weather, accidents, or terrorist attacks," said Jay M Cohen, DHS undersecretary for science and technology.

The "Secure Super Grid™" system employs high temperature superconductors (HTS). The temperatures in question are only high relative to previous superconductors; present-day HTS systems must still be chilled down to hundreds of degrees below zero. But the benefits are significant as they can then carry far more current with much less resistance than ordinary materials.

American Superconductor is contracted both to the DHS and Con Edison, and total project cost is estimated to be $39.3m. It is anticipated that DHS will fund up to $25m of this total. Testing is targeted for completion by the end of 2008.

The second phase of the project will focus on the deployment within Con Edison's power grid in New York City at "an undisclosed location". Commissioning of the 13 kilovolt (kV) HTS cable system is expected in early 2010. If the initial link proves a success, it might kickstart the use of superconductors in power grids.

American Superconductor is clearly hoping so.

The firm's founder and CEO Greg Yurek said: "Not only will this project kick off the deployment of superconductor technology, it will also demonstrate a new power grid solution that will have broad appeal around the globe."

That all remains to be seen, of course, and so does the homeland-security benefit. New York's financial district surely remains a primary terrorist target, and the power grid could well be a way to attack it. The US east coast has already suffered accidental outages in recent times. According to most accounts, the blackouts in August 2003 were caused by failure to trim trees around high-voltage power lines in Ontario*.

It's to be hoped that the DHS's classical reference isn't entirely accurate. Mythology buffs will no doubt recall that the Hydra was eventually killed with the aid of burning trees from a forest fire.

*Bootnote: A Reg reader points out this should read Ohio, not Ontario - full comment below. ®

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