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FlatWire rolls simpler, cheaper solution to WPANs

Posted: 24 Mar 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:transparent insulators 

Flatire Technologies, a copper wire maker, claims it has pre-empted the need for complex, expensive new wireless technologies—such as 60GHz wireless personal area networks (WPAN)—with a simpler, cheaper solution that is available today.

As a division of North America's biggest manufacturer of electrical wire and cable—Southwire Company—FlatWire claims to solve the same problems as WPAN, such as cutting the clutter behind equipment and obviating the need to pull cable through walls, with flat copper wiring that is glued to walls and ceilings, then made nearly invisible with a simple coat of spackle and paint.

FlatWire—composed of thin strips of copper encapsulated in transparent insulators—was recently written into the National Electric Code (NEC) of the United States, thereby making it eligible for widespread adoption. NEC is the governing entity of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which establishes requirements for electrical technologies. FlatWire already met NEC for its low-voltage signal wiring, but its new listing under article 382 claims FlatWire is safe for carrying 110V line current, too. (NEC article 382 lists FlatWire as "concealable nonmetallic extensions"; nonmetallic in that it does not require a metal conduit.) FlatWire is currently undergoing the voluntary listing process with Underwriters Laboratory (UL), which is expected to be completed by the end of 2008.

Safest ever
"FlatWire is the safest wiring ever created," proclaimed Robb Sexton, president of the FlatWire Technologies. "The trick was to make a flat wire that is essentially invisible on a wall's surface, but safe to carry 110V at 15A."

Sexton invented FlatWire after founding DeCorp Americas Inc., which was acquired by Southwire in 2005. Since then he has dedicated his time to perfecting different form factors of FlatWire for all types of signals, which today include Ethernet RJ45 replacement, coaxial cable replacement, three-conductor (RGB) component-video cable replacement, S-video cable replacement, stereo audio cable replacement, speaker wire replacement and now 110V power cable replacement.

"Power cable replacement was our biggest challenge—we've been through three iterations to get it right," said Sexton. "What we had to do was invent a whole new design. It's still like one wide copper strip, as are our other models, but actually it is a stack of five conductive layers."

Of the five layers, the outside two layers are grounded; the next two layers are neutral, leaving the hot conductor in the middle, completely encapsulated by the other four layers—two on each side.

"As a result, the risk of shock or fire has been completely neutralized, because if this wire is ever penetrated, you always hit ground first, neutral second and by the time you hit the hot layer you have created a short, which trips the circuit breaker every time," said Sexton.

In conjunction with the safety of the wire itself, FlatWire also had its electrical engineers create active electronics that monitors for ground faults, mitigates arcs and acts as a secondary over-current device. The intelligent device constantly monitors 110V FlatWires to detect faults that could causes shocks or fires.

Sophisticated, intelligent
"We've made it into a very sophisticated intelligent device—it's chock full of goodness from an EE's viewpoint," said Sexton. "Its microprocessor controlled with on-board memory and many active and passive components, and is smart enough to know when you plug it into an outlet that is wired wrong."

The active safety device, which looks like a stylized wall-wart, opens its own circuit breaker if any fault is detected.

For the future, FlatWire is working on variable length HDMI cabling that it hopes to have into production later this year. Its HDMI cables, like its other offerings, will enable installers to cut it to size, glue it to walls, attach solder-free connectors with standard pin-outs to each end, then conceal the cable with a coat of spackle and paint.

Industrial applications of FlatWire are also being developed, including versions that replace wiring harnesses inside equipment boxes—using, instead, the inside walls of enclosures as wiring planes. Also, automobile versions are being developed that use the flat panels beneath a car's carpet as a wiring plane to replace bulky wiring harnesses.

- R. Colin Johnson
EE Times

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