The 2003 Northeast Blackout And The Harsh Lessons Of Grid Failures

The grid failure in 2003 which reverted much of the eastern US and Canada back to a pre-electrification era may be rather memorable, yet it was not the first time that a national, or even international power grid failed. Nor is it likely that it will be the last. In August of 2023 we mark the 20th anniversary of this blackout which left many people without electricity for up to three days, while costing dozens of  people their lives. This raises the question of what lessons we learned from this event since then.

Although damage to transmission lines and related infrastructure is a big cause of power outages – especially in countries where overhead wiring is the norm – the most serious blackouts involve the large-scale desynchronization of the grid, to the point where generators shutdown to protect themselves. Bringing the grid back from such a complete blackout can take hours to days, as sections of the grid are reconnected after a cascade scenario as seen with the 2003 blackout, or the rather similar 1965 blackout which affected nearly the same region.

With how much more modern society relies today on constant access to electrical power than it did twenty, let alone fifty-eight years ago, exactly how afraid should we be of another, possibly worse blackout?

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Blame It On The Sockets: Forensic Analysis Of The Arecibo Collapse

Nearly three years after the rapid unplanned disassembly of the Arecibo radio telescope, we finally have a culprit in the collapse: bad sockets.

In case you somehow missed it, back in 2020 we started getting ominous reports that the cables supporting the 900-ton instrument platform above the 300-meter primary reflector of what was at the time the world’s largest radio telescope were slowly coming undone. From the first sign of problems in August, when the first broken cable smashed a hole in the reflector, to the failure of a second cable in November, it surely seemed like Arecibo’s days were numbered, and that it would fall victim to all the other bad luck we seemed to be rapidly accruing in that fateful year. The inevitable finally happened on December 1, when over-stressed cables on support tower four finally gave way, sending the platform on a graceful swing into the side of the natural depression that cradled the reflector, damaging the telescope beyond all hope of repair.

The long run-up to the telescope’s final act had a silver lining in that it provided engineers and scientists with a chance to carefully observe the failure in real-time. So there was no real mystery as to what happened, at least from a big-picture perspective. But one always wants to know the fine-scale details of such failures, a task which fell to forensic investigation firm Thornton Tomasetti. They enlisted the help of the Columbia University Strength of Materials lab, which sent pieces of the failed cable to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s High Flux Isotope reactor for neutron imaging, which is like an X-ray study but uses streams of neutrons that interact with the material’s nuclei rather than their electrons.

The full report (PDF) reveals five proximate causes for the collapse, chief of which is “[T]he manual and inconsistent splay of the wires during cable socketing,” which we take to mean that the individual strands of the cables were not spread out correctly before the molten zinc “spelter socket” was molded around them. The resulting shear stress caused the zinc to slowly flow around the cable strands, letting them slip out of the surrounding steel socket and — well, you can watch the rest below for yourself.

As is usually the case with such failures, there are multiple causes, all of which are covered in the 300+ page report. But being able to pin the bulk of the failure on a single, easily understood — and easily addressed — defect is comforting, in a way. It’s cold comfort to astronomers and Arecibo staff, perhaps, but at least it’s a lesson that might prevent future failures of cable-supported structures.

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It’s A Sander! No, It’s A Toothbrush! Relax, Relax, It’s Both

We always enjoy a project that transforms some common object into something useful for us. [Modelkitsdeluxe] fits the bill by modifying a power toothbrush into a miniature sander. If you want to practice your Spanish, you can watch the video below. Or you can try the automatically translated captions.

As you can guess from the user name, he is mainly interested in working with small models, but it struck us that this might also be useful for general 3D printing. Honestly, once you have the idea, there isn’t much to it. You mutilate a brush head that fits the toothbrush to accept a small sanding disk.

There are probably a dozen ways to attach your sandpaper or emery cloth to the head. [Modelkitdeluxe] used double-sided tape and Velcro. While we applaud the upcycling, we’ll probably stick with a hobby tool. Our toothbrush makes an annoying buzz every 30 seconds or so to remind you to move to another part of your mouth. That doesn’t seem like a great feature when doing precision sanding. On the other hand, you could probably yank the controller out of the toothbrush and use it for the motor, drive, and batteries to avoid that.

If you want to tackle that, here’s something to get you started. If sanding doesn’t turn your crank, maybe you can try turning your deadbolt.

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