By Brian Sloboda
Walk into any sporting goods or camping store and you will be faced with several types of water repellents that can be applied to boots, tents and other types of gear to keep it dry. What if you could apply a similar substance to power lines that would prevent them from accumulating ice and falling down? This technology could be here sooner than you think.
Traditionally, chemists have referred to water repelling molecules as “hydrophobic.” A new generation of materials that repel water especially well has been dubbed “superhydrophobic.” Three different research groups in North America are investigating the development of superhydrophobic materials, and their work holds great promise for utilities that lose millions of dollars in damages caused by ice or (in coastal areas) seawater.
The potential applications for this new material are numerous. Primary beneficial applications are to power lines, insulators and equipment, including high-tension power lines and pylons. Other applications may include conductors and exposed electrical equipment at substations. The coating could also be applied to other power grid surfaces and structures where ice accumulation due to normal or super-cooled water contact with subfreezing surfaces occurs. The invention could even prove beneficial for renewable energy applications, such as wind turbines and solar panels.
Every winter, ice and freezing rain cause power lines to snap and equipment to short out. In coastal areas, sea spray coats distribution and transmission equipment with corrosive salt. These harsh conditions cost electric utilities––and consequently, consumers––millions of dollars every year in equipment damage. A superhydrophobic coating could prevent these problems and improve service reliability.
Through the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), electric cooperatives have funded the testing of a superhydrophobic coating in cooperation with the National Electric Energy Testing, Research & Applications Center (NEETRAC) at Georgia Tech. NRECA and electric co-ops are actively involved in other trials to further the development of these materials.
The materials need further testing and additional field trials, but one can only imagine the savings superhydrophobic materials will offer in preventing ice storm and seawater damage to utility equipment.
Brian Sloboda is a program manager specializing in energy efficiency for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.