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The second question — what can we do with it? — has further cemented an industrial partnership between the ABB Group and the NSF Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures at Rensselaer. ABB—a “forward-looking” company in Schadler’s estimation—also was intrigued by the idea of using nanotechnology to improve the performance of insulating materials and asked Schadler to try it out. “The limitation in my lab was that the electrical testing was not particularly good,” she says.

Meanwhile, Nelson’s promising results attracted funds from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to improve the original, rather crudely made, nanocomposites to develop new structures for use in power cables. “The first ones I made in Leicester were just ‘bucket chemistry.’ We really didn’t have much in the way of fabrication equipment,” Nelson says.

In combination, however, Nelson and Schadler make a powerful team with both the electric power expertise and the materials processing expertise. Mix two approaches and get a new research area that is more than the sum of its parts.

 “Nanodielectrics will be used in several insulating applications,” says Schadler. “For example, in a high-voltage transmission circuit, modern electrical cables are insulated by polymers. Real advantages will result from using nanodielectrics to replace the current polymer insulation.

The benefits of nanodielectrics come in the form of increased endurance and enhanced breakdown strength of the material, says Nelson. From an applications perspective that means insulation can be used more effectively or larger voltages can be used. “It’s a very pervasive breakthrough. Everything electrical has to be insulated, not just cables. It has ramifications for the whole of the electrical industry,” says Nelson.

Nanodielectrics last longer than conventional composites and thus can reduce the need for maintenance and extend the life of equipment that uses insulating materials, such as the thermosetting resins used in large electrical generators. Because of its superior breakdown strength, which is measured in terms of the voltage required to precipitate irreversible failure, nanodielectric materials can be used more efficiently. So you can reduce the thickness of a cable or a circuit board, says Schadler, “and anything that reduces weight is important particularly for airborne applications.”

“We’ve come a long way in five years,” says Nelson. “Negotiations are ongoing with a large chemical company to take this commercial application. That’s exciting for an academic to feel that something they did has this kind of impact on the national stage.”

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Linda Schadler
Linda Schadler
Professor of materials science and engineering
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