Research collaborators cross disciplines to explore the electrical insulating potential of this burgeoning new field
By Jill U Adams
Mix two things and get a new thing that is more than the sum of its parts.
Collaborative research by Professors Keith Nelson and Linda Schadler combining synthetic polymers (like polyethylene) and nanoscale particles (made from silica or other metal oxides) to make nanocomposites has lead to materials with dramatically better electrical properties. These new nanodielectrics will be used in electrical insulating applications.
“The reason it’s exciting is because these are not small improvements,” says Schadler, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer. “In terms of voltage endurance, we’re seeing an order of magnitude difference. So if it was going to last five years, theoretically now it might last 50 years. That’s huge.”
Nelson, the Philip Sporn Chair of Electric Power Engineering at Rensselaer, has a long history in electric power, both in academia and in industry. Born and educated in the U.K., Nelson still remains connected to one of his professors from the University of London. In 1994, Prof. T.J. Lewis (now professor emeritus at the University of Wales) wrote a theoretical paper on the potential of nanodielectrics. During a sabbatical leave from Rensselaer in 2002, Nelson returned to his homeland and tested his former professor’s theory.
“I had been thinking about this for some time, but I got the chance to go to England and work with Fothergill,” says Nelson, referring to his host at Leicester University. “We found it really did look quite good and published a paper. I’m sort of proud to say that since that time, this whole area has really taken off.”
Like good engineers, Schadler and Nelson ask two questions about the change in insulating properties: why does it happen and what can we do with it?