Becoming Materially Minded

Nov. 12, 2012
We’re rebuilding our power system infrastructure. New materials can help us get the most out of our investment.

Like many EEs, I always took pride in considering myself a “hard core” electrical engineer. I loved math and chemistry and I took advanced classes in physics in graduate school just for the sheer joy of it! The IT stuff was for the faint of heart.

My first job out of the university was running a high voltage research laboratory. I got to test and help improve insulators, build a wind tunnel to develop transmission line dynamic thermal rating algorithms, help a manufacturer improve the efficiency of three phase motors – a lot of fun stuff. I even got to test a 500kV series capacitor bank by closing in on a bolted fault. Mind you, the bank was fully installed on the West Coast 500kV Intertie so there was plenty of fault current available. The bank failed with a flash and a very loud boom. Show me a NAND gate that will give you that kind of excitement!

Eventually the industry’s attention turned to IT and telecommunications and my career turned with it. Smart grid sealed the deal and I enjoyed researching and eventually writing about the new thriving marriage of power delivery and information technology.

But I still miss the hands-on applied hard science schoolyard that I became an engineer to play in.

Recently I was invited to visit the national Industry/Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) for Novel High-Voltage/Temperature Materials and Structures at Denver University. Dr. Maciej Kumosa, John Evans Professor and Director, Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, manages the DU laboratory. Dr. Kumosa is one of the most energetic and interesting men that I’ve met. He’s so full of ideas that when you’re with him you want to take notes or sign up for one of his courses.

A tour of the various facilities was an absolute delight. Here were advanced underground cables, polymer core overhead conductors, non-porcelain insulators of all types. Tests were being conducted in saltwater baths, ozone exposure chambers, and other environments designed to simulate operational conditions. The laboratory also has some of the biggest tensile testing machines I’ve seen.

I also saw computer simulations of various chemical processes that affect the life and performance of innovative materials starting to be used in the power industry. These are highly complex visual tools that take into account the quantum dynamics between molecules. Using them, the materials scientist can custom design epoxies, polymers, composites, you name it. Maybe we could have avoided some of the spectacular failures in the early days of synthetic insulators if manufacturers had been able to figure in the combined effects of high electric fields, UV radiation and moisture.

Finally, to top off the tour, Dr. Kumosa turned his grad students loose on me to explain their areas of research. Fascinated, I could have hung out there for days.

Sophisticated chemistry, physics and math - not what one usually associates with our industry where, traditionally, big is beautiful and heavy is holy. But we’ve got restrictions on right-of-way expansion, bigger swings in conductor heating due to intermittent generation, need for better and larger scale storage and many other challenges coming our way. We’ve got to get the most out of what we build.

And that means revisiting the materials that we build with

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