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New Insulator Could Help Grid Weather Storms

Better insulation for high-voltage cables could keep them dry during deluges and cut transmission loss. Larry Greenemeier reports

High voltage cables are typically insulated with special water-resistant polymers that have high-dielectric strength. When the cables get whacked by an especially strong rain or snow storm the insulation may not block all of the moisture. The leaks can lead to a loss of electrical current or even damage to the cables. Typically, the insulation will regain its ability to block water hours, or even days, later.

Engineers know that cable insulation can temporarily lose its ability to repel water under extreme conditions. Now researchers at IBM and Swiss electric-grid builder ABB think they can create an insulating material that can stay water repellent longer—or at least recover quicker. [Philip T. Shemella et al., "Surface Dynamics of Amorphous Polymers Used for High-Voltage Insulators," Journal of Physical Chemistry B]

Using computer simulations, the researchers are studying the molecular dynamics of a new type of polymer under a variety of conditions. Based on the tests so far, the companies claim this virtual insulator can help prevent the 7 percent loss of electricity experienced on average in the U.S. during transmission.

Anything that can reduce stress on overtaxed electrical grids would be welcome. Just ask the one million people still in the dark from last weekend's early season snow storm in the northeastern U.S.

—Larry Greenemeier

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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