KEMA-Powertest lab in Bucks, where no explosions means no business

An explosion and fireball at KEMA-Powertest lab in Chalfont, the largest independent high- power electrical-testing facility in America, is all in a day's work.
An explosion and fireball at KEMA-Powertest lab in Chalfont, the largest independent high- power electrical-testing facility in America, is all in a day's work. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 14, 2013

Paul P. Leufkens was chatting Tuesday afternoon in his office at the KEMA-Powertest lab in Chalfont when a blast outside the building shook the walls, and a blinding flash lit up the window.

"People sometimes ask if the explosions frighten me," said Leufkens, president of the lab. "Actually, I'm scared when we don't feel these shots."

They get paid to blow things up at KEMA-Powertest, the largest independent high-power electrical-testing facility in America.

No explosions means no business.

Builders of some of the most elaborate equipment used by electric utilities to transmit and distribute power deliver their transformers, switches, cables, and relays to this nondescript lab on County Line Road so the engineers here can subject the gear to extreme abuse.

The lab's machinery can replicate the massive short-circuits and lightning strikes that can bring an electrical-transmission system to its knees. The tests determine whether the equipment can withstand the jolts - or at what point they fail to withstand them.

On Tuesday, the 35 employees formally welcomed back a short-circuit generator that was being refurbished in Virginia for the last two years. Leufkens said the rebuild took longer than expected, testing the patience of some customers.

Now as good as new, the 54-year-old generator, originally built by Oerlikon in Switzerland, can produce one billion volt-amperes in a very short burst.

That could microwave a lot of potatoes.

"That is as much power as the city of Philadelphia pulls," said Leufkens. "Of course, we can do it only for one second."

A second generator at the site can actually produce twice as much power. Yet the machines don't even have nicknames, like Little Jolt and Big Jolt.

They're just G1 and G2.

The lab was built in 1969 by ITE Imperial Co., but it has changed hands over the years. KEMA, a Dutch company, bought it in 1990. In 2011, KEMA merged with DNV, a Norwegian company.

Recent storm-related power outages, and the blackout during the Super Bowl, have drawn more public attention to the role of the power grid.

KEMA engineers are all too familiar with the complexity of the system that connects customers to power producers.

"We definitely get to see the real side of electricity," said Hugo van Nispen, chief operating officer of KEMA Inc., who visited the Bucks County lab Tuesday to join the staff in giving the returning G1 a champagne toast.

Tests performed here are required to certify that the equipment meets standards for avoiding catastrophic accidents in the field. They also provide manufacturers with data they can use to improve the machinery.

Last year, the lab received UL's Third Party Test Data Program Qualification, which means its certifications carry the UL seal.

The lab also tests large battery-storage systems, which are becoming increasingly important as more renewable-power generation comes on line.

The engineers, mostly men, are sticklers for details, and very serious about their work.

Still, there's a boyish delight that's evident when the generators are gearing up to deliver a blast.

The lab is connected directly to a 32,000-volt Peco Co. transmission line. As a demonstration, the engineers set up the generator to deliver an 8,000-volt, 2,000-amp jolt for a quarter of a second, said Alexander Feldman, the lab's engineering manager.

Disposable sunglasses were passed around the control room to protect visitors from the flash. Observers looked like the audience at a 3D movie.

"That's very high power," said Robert Warren, vice president for marketing and sales, "that can really do some serious damage to you."


For more photos of the lab and its explosive tests, go to www.philly.com/bigbang


Contact Andrew Maykuth

at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Maykuth.

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