Partial_Discharge_and_Insulation_Failure by newbabytopic



     Dr Colin Smith
        IPEC Ltd.

Partial Discharge (PD) is an electrical discharge that does not completely bridge the space between two
conducting electrodes. The discharge may be in a gas filled void in a solid insulating material, in a gas
bubble in a liquid insulator or around an electrode in a gas. When partial discharge occurs in a gas, it is
usually known as corona.

Partial discharge is generally accepted as the predominate cause of long term degradation and eventual
failure of electrical insulation. As a result, its measurement is standard as part of the factory testing of most
types of high voltage equipment. In addition, partial discharge activity is very often monitored on in-service
equipment to warn against pending insulation failure.

Test specifications set a maximum permissible level for partial discharges depending on the type of
equipment being tested and the insulating material used. The principle behind such a specification is that
discharges below a certain size cause minimal damage to the insulation. As insulation systems have
increasingly moved towards polymers, acceptable discharge levels have lowered dramatically as they are
less resistant to damage by discharge.

This section will look at the physics behind the phenomenon of partial discharge, the effects partial
discharge has on insulating systems and the failure mechanisms these can lead to.


Partial discharge has been observed as a phenomenon occurring in stressed high voltage insulation since
the turn of the century. It became of increasing academic interest from the 1930s when its degrading effect
on high voltage insulation became increasingly problematic. Early studies used ultrasonic detection
techniques to assess discharge activity in oil . In the 1950's theoretical and practical studies led by John
Mason looked at how discharge activity could lead to previously unheard of breakdown processes like
electrical treeing .

From the 1960s to the present time, partial discharge has been studied intensively in terms of the
fundamental physics behind it, its effect on insulating systems and how best it can be measured and
monitored with time.

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Solid insulators are manufactured to give an even distribution of electrical stress between the conducting
electrodes. However, in practice this is virtually impossible to achieve. Manufacturing processes invariably
give rise to small cavities or voids in the insulation bulk.

These cavities are usually filled with a gas of lower breakdown strength than the surrounding solid. In
addition to this the permittivity of the gas is invariably lower than that of the solid insulation, causing the
field intensity in the cavity to be higher than that in the dielectric. Therefore under the normal working stress
of the insulation, the voltage across the cavity may exceed the breakdown value and initiate electrical
breakdown in the void.

                              Figure 1, Equivalent circuit for cavity in insulator

Assume a solid insulator of thickness d contains a disc shaped cavity of thickness t and area A, as shown
in Figure 1. In the equivalent circuit the capacitance Cc corresponds to the cavity, Cb corresponds to the
capacity of the dielectric that is in series with Cc and Ca is the capacitance of the rest of the dielectric.

Given that capacitance C, in Farads/m , is given by;

                                                ε0εr A
                                                          -12        -1
         ε0 = permittivity of free space = 8.854 x 10           Fm
         εr = relative permittivity
         A = area between electrodes
         d = separation of electrodes

If we assume that the gas in the cavity (of thickness t) in figure 1 has a relative permittivity of approximately
1, then:

                                                  Cc =

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                                                      ε0εr A
                                              Cb =
         εr = relative permittivity of the solid insulator

As Cb and Cc essentially form a capacitive divider, the voltage across the cavity, Vc, can be expressed as;

                      Vc =             Va
                              Cc + C b

Substituting into the above equation gives;

                       Vc =
                                 1 d
                              1+      −1
                                 εr t

Therefore electrical field strength across the cavity (Ec) is given by the equation,

                     Ec = Ea
                                        1 d
                                t 1+         −1
                                        εr t

Given that in most circumstances t << d and εr is greater than 1, it can be seen that electrical stress in the
cavity is greater than that in the surrounding insulation. This, coupled with the fact that the breakdown
strength of the gas is likely to be significantly lower than that of the insulation, makes the gas in the void
liable to breakdown under normal working conditions.

The table below shows relative permittivity's and breakdown strengths of some typical high voltage
insulating materials.

From the equations above it can be seen that the voltage across the dielectric at which discharge activity
will initiate in the cavity, Vai, is given by;

                                        1 d
                     Vai = E cb t 1 +        −1
                                        εr t
         Ecb = Breakdown strength of the gas in the cavity

In practice voids in solid insulators are very often approximately spherical. In this case the field in the void
is given by;

                                          3ε r E a
                                 Ec =
                                        ε rc + 2ε r

Where εrc = relative permittivity of gas in void.

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When εr >> εrc this approximates to:

                                Ec =      Ea

      Material                                             Relative                 Breakdown
                                                          permittivity           strength kVmm
      Air (atmospheric pressure)                            1.0006                       3
      Transformer oil                                         2.2                       28
      Polyethylene                                            2.3                       24
      Polyurethane                                            4.0                       10
      Paper                                                   3.0                        9
      Mica                                                    6.0                       42
      Epoxy                                                   4.7                       12

Each time a discharge occurs in the cavity, charge is transferred from one side of the cavity to the other
until the potential difference across the cavity is too small to maintain the discharge. When the insulator is
subject to a sinusoidal alternating voltage, charge builds up within the void as the applied voltage increases
or decreases. This causes a series of discharges with charge first moving in one direction, then the other.
Figure 2 shows how the voltage and current across a cavity changes with applied voltage.

                           Figure 2, Voltage and current in discharging cavity.

The dotted curve shows the voltage that would occur across the cavity if the discharges did not equalise
the potential difference across the cavity. As the voltage Vc reaches the value V , a discharge takes place
and the, the voltage Vc collapses and the discharge extinguishes. The voltage across the cavity then starts
again increasing until it reaches V , when a new discharge occurs. In this way several discharges may
take place during the rising part of the applied voltage. Similarly, on decreasing the applied voltage the
cavity discharges as the voltage across it reaches V , In this way groups of discharges are generated by a
single cavity and give rise to positive and negative current pulses on raising and decreasing the applied
voltage respectively.

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When the gas in a cavity breaks down, the opposite surfaces of the insulation momentarily become
cathode and anode. Some of the electrons hitting the anode are sufficiently energetic to break the chemical
bonds of the insulation surface. Similarly, bombardment of the cathode by positive ions may cause damage
by increasing the surface temperature and produce local thermal instability. These degrading effects form
small channels and pits in the surface that can elongate through the insulation. In addition to the ionic
bombardment, chemical degradation may result from active discharge products, like O3 or NO2, formed in
the air by the discharges. The net effect is slow erosion of the insulating material and a very gradual
increase in the size of the cavity.

4.1     Electrical trees

Electrical trees were first observed in the early 1920s when the Commonwealth Edison Company began
installing the first underground residential cables. Electrical trees are comprised of a series of
interconnecting channels or discharge paths with diameters ranging from less than a micron to tens of
microns. Discharge activity in voids will eventually become centred at particular sites producing deep
cavities in the surface. The cavities grow in length along the discharge axis and the energy of discharges
impinging on their tips increases. This combined with electrical stress concentration by virtue of their point
like form, produces increasingly intense electrical fields at the tips of the discharging cavities. Eventually
the breakdown strength of the material in the immediate vicinity of the tip is exceeded. Breakdown follows
with the evaporation, in the space of a few nanoseconds, of a small volume of material. This rapid
conversion launches small shock waves into the insulation. These waves create, in time, a structure of fine
cracks extending into the insulation. Their name comes from the dendritic patterns they from in the
insulation. Figure 3 shows an electrical tree grown from a needle tip in polyester resin.

                                           Figure 3, Electrical tree.
Electrical trees emanate from points of stress enhancement in insulation. This can be a metal inclusion or a
protrusion on a conductor but in practice they more usually originate from a void. The exact process by
which electrical trees propagate is still not fully understood, however, it is generally accepted as being a
combination of mechanical and thermal effects.

There are two clear stages in the development of electrical trees under the application of an alternating
voltage, the inception period, which may be considerable and a much shorter formative period. Eventually
the tree will bridge the insulation. Discharges continue to occur without breakdown because space charge
sets up a reverse field in the channels to counter the field between the electrodes. During this period the
channels slowly widen. Eventually the field can no longer be maintained in the widened channels and
catastrophic breakdown occurs, creating a very large channel though the insulation.

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4.2     Water trees

In the1960s high voltage cables started being made using extruded polyethylene as insulation. By the late
1960s it became apparent that where cables had been laid in wet environments, for instance under rivers,
their failure rates dramatically increased. It was found that water was permeating through the outer
protective sheaths and being absorbed by the insulation. Up to a few percent (by weight) of water can be
held by polyethylene. The discovery of degradation of polyethylene by the combined action of water and
electrical stress was first published in 1969 by Miyashita . By the early 1970s this kind of degradation
became known as water treeing. A water tree is a bush or fan like structure developing like an electrical
tree, from points of stress enhancement. Water trees cause a reduction in the insulation's breakdown
stress level which encourages breakdown. Electrical trees can, on occasion, be initiated from a water tree,
speeding the breakdown process.

Although generally accepted as the major cause of failure in polyethylene insulated cables, there is no
general agreement on the morphology of water trees, with two models competing. In one, water trees form
continuous paths such as micro-channels while in the other model the tree has a high density of micro-
voids that are not connected .

                   Figure 4, Vented water tree.                   Figure 5, Bow-tie water tree.

Water trees are more diffuse than electrical trees and generally grow at lower electrical stresses. Two types
of water tree have been recognised according to where the tree initiates, ‘bow-tie’ trees and ‘vented’ trees.

Bow-tie trees are initiated in the bulk of the insulating material, often from a void, and grow towards the
conducting screens. They clearly derive their name from the pattern they form. Vented trees grow from one
of the conducting screens into the insulation bulk.

4.3     Tracking

Tracking is the formation of a permanent conducting path across an insulator surface. Usually the
conduction path results from degradation of the insulation. For tracking to occur the insulation must be a
carbon based compound.

Most high voltage plant is situated outside. In industrial areas, insulators become contaminated with
pollution and dirt from the atmosphere. Where substations are situated near the sea, salt very quickly
covers the plant. In the presence of moisture, these contaminating layers gives rise to leakage current over
the insulator surface. This heats the surface and through evaporation causes interruption in the moisture
film. Large potential differences are generated over the gaps in the moisture film and small sparks can
bridge the gaps. Heat from the sparks causes carbonisation of the insulation and leads to the formation of
permanent carbon tracks on the surface.

Tracking as a phenomenon severely limits the use of organic insulators in outdoor environments. The rate
of tracking depends on the structure of the polymers and can be significantly reduced by adding
appropriate fillers to the polymer which inhibit carbonisation.

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Liquids are extremely useful as insulators because not only can they easily fill any space, they also
dissipate heat generated in a high voltage system through convection and sometimes forced circulation
The most commonly used liquid insulator is mineral oil. It is used for insulating transformers and
switchgear, it's reasonably cheap and has acceptable dielectric strength and heat transfer properties.
There are, however, a number of drawbacks to the use of oil, for instance, leaks can pose environmental
problems and safety becomes an issue in the event of a catastrophic failure and it is easily contaminated.

There is no single universally accepted theory as to how breakdown occurs in mineral oil. There are
instead a number of different, occasionally complementary and occasionally conflicting theories. Many
factors, such as, oil temperature, applied static pressure, impurities in the oil, electrode area and shape,
electrode material and surface conditions, size of the gap, significantly influence the measured properties
of transformer oil. Therefore these properties, in particular dielectric strength, cannot be defined simply by
their numerical values. Test conditions have to be described in detail if a numerical value is to be
meaningful. It is the lack of a single standard and generally accepted test procedure that is partly to blame
for conflicting theories on breakdown mechanisms.

There are however three elements that are, in practice, commonly associated with failure processes. These
are particles in the oil, water and bubbles.

5.1     Particles

In high voltage systems where oil is circulated for cooling, filters are often used to remove particles and
impurities from the oil. It is impossible though to keep the oil completely free from such contamination.
Even if the system was particle free when new, periodic inspections involve removing lids and covers
allowing dust and particles in. Many systems use pressboard, a cellulose based insulating barrier, or have
paper insulated windings and these can release particles into the oil over time.

When an electric field, E, is applied, these particles become polarised. If the particle has a permittivity, ε2,
greater than that of the oil, ε1, (as is generally the case), a force will act on the particle forcing it toward the
area of maximum electric stress between the electrodes. For a spherical particle of radius r the magnitude
of the force F is given by;

                                       1 3 ε 2 − ε1 2
                                  F=    r          E
                                       2 2ε1 + ε 2
Because of the high permittivity of water, this force is greatly enhanced if the particle is moist or wet. Other
particles will be attracted into the region of highest stress until, eventually, particles will be aligned end to
end by the field. In this way a short circuiting bridge can be formed between the electrodes. Current flow

                                               1 3 2
                                          F=     r E
along these bridges will cause localised heating leading to breakdown. If the particles are metallic then ε2
→ ∞, and;
A single metallic spherical particle between the electrodes can increase the electric field at its surface by up
to three times which can, in some cases, be enough to initiate breakdown. Many studies have been made
on the movement of particles in stressed oil but there is no accurate quantification of how they affect
dielectric strength. It is however accepted that particle contamination severely reduces dielectric strength
and provides a good indication of the condition of oil.

5.2     Water

Water is invariably present in oil under normal working conditions. It may originate from the atmosphere or
be produced by the deterioration of insulating materials and oxidation of the oil. In practice water levels are
usually less than about 20ppm. When levels are higher than this, an electric field can cause globules of
water suspended in the oil to elongate in the direction of the field and, at a critical field strength, they
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become unstable. Breakdown channels then propagate from the ends of the ends of the elongated globule
to produce total breakdown. A concentration of 50ppm of water may be enough to halve the electric
strength of transformer oil.

Occasionally the weather protection of plant can completely fail and large quantities of water will collect at
the bottom of the oil tank. Its level rises until the remaining oil insulation is not enough to maintain the
voltage. This invariably leads to catastrophic failure.

5.3     Bubbles

Small bubbles may be formed in pits and cracks on the cathode surface by one of two methods:

        •   Disassociation of the liquid molecules to produce gaseous products
        •   Local liquid vaporisation through electron emission from sharp points on the cathode

Electrostatic forces elongate the bubble as soon as it is created and, as the breakdown strength of gas is
much lower than that of oil, the field inside the bubble is likely to exceed the strength of the vapour. This
causes a discharge inside the bubble that can chemically degrade the oil, producing in turn more vapour so
the bubble grows. Eventually it bridges the whole gap and breakdown follows.

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6.0     CORONA

When a gas has a uniform electric field across it, the onset of ionisation usually leads to complete
breakdown of the gap. However, in a non-uniform field, discharges can occur long before complete
breakdown happens. This activity is called corona.

Most HV transmission and distribution are simply long lengths of air insulated conductors creating non-
uniform electric fields. As a result corona is responsible for significant power loss from distribution systems.
Corona can also inflict serious long-term damage on insulators through the combined action of ion
bombardment of their surfaces and the action of chemical compounds formed by the discharge. The radio
frequency electromagnetic energy (RF) given off by corona can also cause interference to communication

Corona is a partial discharge in the sense that gas breakdown begins at a position of high electric field but
dies out as the electric field decreases very rapidly as a function of distance from the highly stressed
position. The breakdown can die out for two reasons;

        1, The region of high field is too small to generate a fully formed breakdown channel.
        2, The field falls to such a low value, that even a fully formed breakdown channel cannot

Corona forms in partially ionised regions adjacent to conductors and causes a change in the electric field
between the conductor and the ground. In effect, it can be seen as an extension of the conductor. As such,
it will effectively reduce the capacitance between the conductor and ground, as their separation decreases.
This causes a drop in the voltage on the conductor, a potential difference between the conductor and the
voltage source and, therefore, a current flow from the voltage source to the conductor. The electric field in a
corona is sufficiently high that when a free electron occurs, that electron will, on average, generate more
than one additional electron (and positive ion). So a corona is full of positive and negative ions (electrons).
Thus when the field reduces to the extent that the original current ceases to flow, the electric field does not
immediately return to its previously high value. Before that can happen, the positive and negative ions must
flow in the field toward the negative and positive electrodes respectively. As the negative charges are in the
form of electrons, they can propagate sufficiently fast to contribute to the measured partial discharge signal.
However massive positive ions flow so slowly that they typically generate a very small current over a long
period of time.

Thus a corona can be thought of as generating a PD signal though three mechanisms. First, the ionisation
of a channel, which tends to look like an extension of the conductor and therefore increases the
capacitance of the conductor to ground. Second rapid migration of electrons toward the positive electrode
in a system where negative charge flows as electrons. And thirdly, flow of positive ions which tends to be
too slow to be detected by most PD measuring systems. The time scale for the first two phenomena is
nanoseconds to microseconds, while that for the third phenomena can be milliseconds or more.

Corona tends to be repetitive, as once the region is cleared of charge, it returns to the conditions which
generated it in the first place. Corona in air is sensitive to air velocity and environmental conditions which
affect space charge near the conductor.
In many gases, including air, corona generated by positive and negative voltages differ substantially. This
is due to the physical difference between negative charge carriers (electrons) and positive charge carriers
(positive ions). Electrons being light and mobile gain kinetic energy very rapidly from an electric field, while
positive ions are heavy and much less mobile. The outside surface of molecules is made up of electrons,
so violent phenomena, which dislodge charge from a molecule, free an electron and simultaneously create
a heavy positive ion. In corona from a negative conductor, electrons propagate away from the conductor in
the direction of corona growth. Thus they can create further electrons through molecular collisions. In
corona from a positive conductor, the electrons propagate towards the conductor and away from the
direction of corona growth. In this case, electrons are generally detached ahead of the corona tip by
photons generated within the corona.

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[1]     Kimura, H., Tsumura, T. and Yokosuka, M., "Corona in oil as part of commercial frequency circuit",
Electrotechnical Journal of Japan, Vol. 4, 1940, pp. 90-92.

[2]    Mason, J.H., "The deterioration and breakdown of dielectrics resulting from internal discharges",
Proceedings IEE, Vol. 98 part II, 1951, pp. 44-59.

[3]      Mason, J.H., "Breakdown of insulation by discharges", Proceedings IEE, Symposium of Papers on
Insulating Materials, Vol. 100 part IIA, 1953, pp. 149-58.

[4]    Mason, J.H., "Breakdown of solid dielectrics in divergent fields", Proceedings IEE, Vol. 102 part C,
1955, pp. 254-63.

[5]    Miyashita, T., “Deterioration of Water-immersed Polyethylene Coated Wire by Treeing”,
Proceedings 1969 IEEE-NEMA Electrical Insulation Conference, Boston, pp. 131-5, 1969.

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