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New lubricants improve safety around high voltage power cables

Utility workers doing maintenance on high-voltage power cables face difficult and even unsafe operating conditions. Matthew Mashikian, a professor emeritus of electrical and systems engineering, has designed new lubricants to make the job safer.

One of the hazards workers face is caused by the rubber surfaces of the pre-molded accessories used to distribute electrical power through underground cables, says Mashikian.

Sometimes the cable accessories must be disconnected. "There are rubber surfaces in this process," he says. "When you are pulling on this rubber, it may not open right away. So you put so much force into trying to get the job done that you may tear the rubber, fall and hurt yourself.

"In order to connect or disconnect the accessories you have to lubricate the rubber surfaces so they can glide easily," he adds.

After four or five years, most commercial lubricants wear away, making maintenance work on the cables difficult, if not dangerous.

This is the problem that Mashikian and UConn's Electrical Insulation Research Center sought to address. Now, in a research project sponsored by the Empire State Electrical Energy Research Corp., they have developed lubricants that will allow maintenance to be done without this problem.

"What we found," Mashikian says, "is that silicone grease consists of two components. Pure silicone oil has been mixed with a silica powder. The silica filler added to the oil makes it look like a grease but, in time, the oil starts migrating. It runs away and leaves the silica behind. What is left is no longer a lubricant, so the two rubber mating surfaces stick to each other and that makes it difficult to separate them."

Conventional lubricants use low viscosity oil, he adds, "so to make it thicker a lot of silica has been added."

The solution, Mashikian says, is to create a lubricant with a lower percentage of silica, or no silica at all. And that's what he and the staff at the Electrical Insulation Research Center have done. In fact, they've made five different lubricants which performed better than the commercially available silicone grease, he says.

"Studies of the new technology indicate the new lubricants will remain fluid," says Chuck Leuth, president of PolySi Technologies Inc., which has a license agreement with the University to commercialize the new technology.