A Look At Liquid Dielectrics

One evening quite a few years ago, as I was driving through my hometown I saw the telltale flashing lights of the local volunteer fire department ahead. I passed by a side road where all the activity was: a utility pole on fire. I could see smoke and flames shooting from the transformer and I could hear the loud, angry 60 Hz buzzing that sounded like a million hornet nests. As I passed, the transformer exploded and released a cloud of flaming liquid that rained down on the road and lawns underneath. It seemed like a good time to quit rubbernecking and beat it as fast as I could.

I knew at the time that the flaming liquid was transformer oil, but I never really knew what it was for or why it was in there. Oil is just one of many liquid dielectrics that are found in a lot of power distribution equipment, from those transformers on the pole to the big capacitors and switchgear in the local substation. Liquid dielectrics are interesting materials that are worth taking a look at.

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Retrotechtacular: Making Porcelain Insulators

Here is a silent film produced by General Electric that depicts the making of many kinds of porcelain insulators for power lines. Skilled craftsmen molded, shaped, and carved these vital components of the electrical grid by hand before glazing and firing them.

Porcelain insulators of this time period were made from china clay, ball clay, flint, and feldspar. In the dry process, ingredients are pulverized and screened to a fine powder and then pressed into molds, often with Play-Doh Fun Factory-type effects. Once molded, they are trimmed by hand to remove fins and flashing. The pieces are then spray-glazed while spinning on a vertical lathe.

Other types of insulators are produced through the wet process. The clay is mixed in a pug mill, which is a forgiving machine that takes scrap material of all shapes, sizes, and moisture levels and squeezes out wet, workable material in a big log. Chunks of log are formed on a pottery wheel or pressed into a mold. Once they are nearly dry, the pieces get their final shape at the hands of a master. They are then glazed and fired in a giant, high-temperature kiln.

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