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ZEEE Transactionson Dielectrics and Electrical Insulation

Vol.4 No. 2, April 1997

Surface Discharges on Polymeric Insulator

Shed Surfaces
P. Blackmore and D. Birtwhistle
School of Electrical and Electronic Systems Engineering, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia

This paper describes results of an experimental investigation into surface discharges
occurring on the surface of polymeric insulators. Discharges on partially hydrophobic
surfaces were found to occur across well defined dry bands, while discharges on hydrophobic surfaces appeared as small points of light occurring between discrete water
drops. These discharges were observed to produce a localized loss of hydrophobicity.
It is shown that these discharges are stable atmospheric-pressure glow discharges. The
discharges are characterized by a high cathode voltage fall, dependent on the electrical
conductivity of the water drop, and a voltage gradient in the positive column, dependent on the discharge current. A technique is presented for measuring the rate at which
surface hydrophobicity of polymeric materials is lost due to the action of this type of
discharge. It was found that the loss of hydrophobicity occurred predominantly in the
region near the cathode.

used h HV Outfeature of Polymeric
door insulation is that when new, their surfaces are typically
hydrophobic. HYdroPhobicitY can suppress surface discharges that
occur in wct and polluted conditions, and is responsible for the superior contamination performance that polymeric materials are widely
reported to haver when compared with
porcelain and glass. It is well known however, that surfacedischarges
can age Polymeric materials, thus reducing hYdroPhobicitY.This
result in increased surface discharging, and cause SUrfacedamage due
to tracking and erosion [I], and increased risk of insulation flashover.
The amount of surface discharging is primarily dependent on the
properties of the polymer surface, as well as on environmental conditions such as pollution and moisture deposition [2]. Discharges on
hydrophilic or partially hydrophilic polymer surfaces under moderate
pollution conditions, typically occur across a well defined dry band,
similar to those that occur on porcelain and glass [3]. In cases of high
levels of contamination, larger discharges occur that propagate across
the pollution film. Discharges of this type have been studied because
of their relevance to insulator flashover [3,4]. A third type of discharge activity has been observed on hydrophobic polymer surfaces.
Here discharges occur between discrete drops or runnels of water,
and appear as small points of light, of short duration and occur at
apparently random locations on the surface. Karady et al. [5] provided images of such discharges on the surface of a contaminated,
but hydrophobic silicone rubber insulator shed, energized at a realistic voltage stress of 25 mm/kV. Discharges were found to occur
between elongated water drops and 'filaments' of water produced by
deformation of the moisture layer due to the electric field. Discharges
were described as 'spot discharges' and were observed to destroy the
hydrophobicity of the silicone rubber surface, playing a role in the
progression to insulator flashover.

This paper presents the results of a fundamental study to determine the physical characteristics of small low current electrical discharges that can occur between drops of water and water runnels on
hydrophobic insulator surfaces when wet and polluted. An understanding of this type of discharge is important because of the role
that it plays in the initial loss of hydrophobicity during extremepol.
lution events in service, and during salt fog tests in the laboratory.
The occurrence of discharges on polymer insulator surfaces are first
demonstrated by a simple experiment subjecting partially hydrophobic EPDM and hydrophobic silicone rubber to salt fog. This is followed
by an investigation of the characteristicsof discharges beheen hdividual pairs of water drops to facilitate a more detailed examination of
the fundamental discharge phenomena. New information is obtained
about the physical characteristics of surface discharges on moist hydrophobic surfaces and the effect of such discharges on the rate of loss
of hydrophobicity of polymeric materials.


Surface discharges on wet and contaminated polymeric surfaces
were studied by photographing the appearance and measuring the
leakage current of discharges produced during the simultaneous application of HV and salt fog for a period of one hour. Samples were
75 x50 mm2 slabs. EPDM and HTV silicone rubber samples were cut
from the weather sheds of composite insulators and contained aluminum trihydrate (ATH) filler. RTV samples were manufactured from
a 2 part RTV compound and were unfilled. The silicone polymers were
characterized by Fourier transform infra-red spectroscopy and were
found to be predominantly polydimethylsiloxane. The advancing and
receding contact angles of water drops were 72" and 0"for the EPDM,

1070-9878/97/$3,00 @ 1997 IEEE

IEEE Transactionson Dielectrics and Electrical Insulation


Vol,4 No. 2, April 1997

initially observed for both 1000 and : 6000 pScm-' conductivity fog,
in the form of a dry band discharge (E igure 1).The dry-band occurred
0.25 mm in width,
initially as a thin band of blue disciarges,
increasing in intensity with the appl: cation of moisture. At currents
below 5 mA, the discharges were 1 wedominantly blue in color and
were observed to be similar in succesi ,iveframes of video. When peak
currents were > 5 mA, occasional Jellow bursts were seen across
the dry band (Figure 1). The dry bard was stable but moved slowly
across the surface. The rate of movem a t was observed to be typically
between 2 and 10 "/min.
In regior s that had been exposed to dryband discharging, the surface was c impletely hydrophilic with the
water forming a uniform layer.
Images of the dry band discharge ibtained with the video camera
at 25 frames per second and a short sh itter time of 100 ps,showed that
the dry band consisted of typically 01 .e, but occasionally two or three
filamentary discharges in parallel. A I estimate of the duration of individual discharges of
s was obtained, by noting the increase
in the average number of parallel di ;charges observed as the exposure time of the camera was increase( . The short-duration discharges
continuously moved about in such a v ray that the dry-band discharges
appeared as a single diffuse luminous glow in photographs taken with
shutter times > 20 ms.
In tests with 16000 pScm-l fog, 1,irger discharges were observed
once the material was fully wet. The discharges were an intense yellow color and appeared to propagat 3 across the dry band and over
the wet surface. Discharge currents were typically in the form of a
current pulse with a peak magnitudc of 10 to 20 mA and a duration
of 2 to 6 ms. This form of disc1 arge was unstable, occurring at
apparently random locations on the i iurface. It was possible in some
cases to observe a dry region in the ar,!a affected by the discharge. It is
hypothesized that such discharges o( cur in the regions with the lowest local surface resistance. The disch irge dries the area with which it
is in contact with, thus preventing fui ther discharge in the same location, until such time as the combinatir in of deposition of moisture and
drying of other regions by similar dk charges again makes the region
the most conductive. This suggests t. )at the effect of such discharges
on surface aging will tend to be distr buted over the entire surface.
Of the silicone rubber materials, o dy the HTV with 16000 pScm-l
fog produced visible discharge activity. Discharge activity was not
observed on the HTV material at 1000 pScm-'. Neither was discharging observed on the RTV material at e ither fog conductivity This suggests that surface discharges will nc't occur on a highly hydrophobic surface under realistic voltage si ress, even under high levels of
contamination. Discharges observed on the HTV silicone rubber surface, with a fog conductivity of 16000 pScm-', occurredbetween water drops, typically occurring in serii and forming a chain between
the two electrodes. The discharges ai )peared as small points of light,
initially blue, changing to yellow wi h increasing current (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Discharges on polymeric insulating materials in salt fog.
Discharges were often seen in the sal ne location for 2 to 5 successive
(Top) Typical dry-band discharge activity on partially hydrophobic
frames of video taken 1/25 s apart, ii tdicating that discharges of this
EPDM. Discharge current
7 mA peak. (Bottom) Small discharges on
type can exist in one location for a number of ac cycles. The dishydrophobic HTV silicone rubber
charges appeared to produce a 1ocali::edloss of hydrophobicity causThe moisture layer on the EPDM material tended to consist of an ing adjacent water drops to coalesce In our experiments, prolonged
irregular layer of water drops and wet regions. Discharge activity was discharging typically produced an i rea of reduced hydrophobicity

117" and 49" for the HTV material, and 111" and 64" for the RTV material. The contact angle of water drops on a surface that is wetted by
fog or condensation will be distributed between the advancing and
receding angles, as water drops continuously grow, coalesce and then
run from Me surface. The RTV, with a receding contact angle of 64"
can therefore be considered to be the more hydrophobic material.
A stream of salt fog produced by an ultrasonic fog generator with
an electrical conductivity of either 1000 or 16000 pS cm-' was applied directly to the initially dry surface, at a deposition rate of
760 gmP2hp1. The fog particle size distribution was determined by
collecting fog particles on a glass microscope slide coated with a fine
layer of magnesium oxide, and viewing with a scanning electron microscope. It was found that 53% of fog particles were < 5.2 pm in
diameter and 90% were < 10.4 pm in diameter. A 2 kV,,,, 50 Hz
voltage was applied between two 10 mm diameter, 5 mm long cylindrical carbon electrodes spaced 25 mm apart horizontally on the sample surface,which was inclined at an angle of 45". Images of discharge
activity in the space between the electrodes were obtained using a
video camera operating at 25 frames per second, and fitted with a
macro-lens attachment.

- -


Blackmo#reet al.: Surface Discharges on Polymeric Insulator Shed Surfaces


on an otherwise hydrophobic surface. This region was able to accumulate water due to the restraining effect of the hydrophobic boundary Intense localized discharge activity occurred between adjacent
runnels of water and the boundary of the hydrophilic region, with
leakage current increasing to > 50 mA, this being the upper limit of
the recording equipment. Although the duration of this experiment
was only 1 h, some erosion of the HTV material was observed in regions of intense discharge activity in the form of small pits visible to
the eye. Subsequent measurement of contact angles confirmed that
localized loss of hydrophobicity had occurred in regions exposed to
surface discharges, with receding contact angles reduced to 0" and
advancing angles to < 30".
probe o,5 mm

Positive column

Faraday dark

_ -


5 m m dia. holes
filled with NaCl

To current shunt
and ground

a discharge between water drop electrodes. Water drop conductivity

1000 LScm-l, material PTFE, discharge current 7.5 mA,discharge gap
2.5 mm.



Dischar e gap

Figure 2. Apparatus for investigating dischargesbetween water drop




Figure 3 shows a discharge with a spacing of 2.5 mm between

250 ,uScmpl conductivity water drops. The discharge appears predominantly blue in color and contains many of the structural features
of a typical low pressure glow discharge [6]. The bright region next
to the cathode i s the negative glow, and adjacent i s a less luminous
region of N 0.1 mm in length corresponding to the Faraday dark
space. Between the Faraday dark space and the anode can be seen the
more luminous positive column. A cathode glow and cathode dark
space were not seen, due to the small dimensions of these regions
(< 0.1 mm) as expected at atmospheric pressure [6].

Stationary discharges were produced between simulated water

drop electrodes to facilitate the detailed study of the discharge phenomena occurring on polymer surfaces. Two water drop-like electrodes were produced on the surface of insulating material by drilling
holes 5 mm in diameter in the sample surface. The holes were filled
The cathode fall of a normal glow discharge can be approximated
to a level above the surface with a solution of NaCl and de-ionized
[6]by the empirical relation
water, producing an electrode resembling a water drop with a 60"
contact angle (Figure 2). This contact angle was chosen as it was con= -1n
[I +
sidered to be representative of contact angles of water drops formed
during fog or condensation on the HTV material, for which surface And the length of the cathode fall region by the empirical relation
discharges were observed. The amount of NaCl was indicated by the
electrical conductivity of the solution. PTFE was used as the base material for all experiments described in Section 2 of this paper, as this
material has a high temperature resistance, is hydrophobic and is easIn Equations (1) and (2) V, is the cathode fall voltage (V), d , is
ily machined. The distance between the edges of the two water drops
length of the cathode fall region (cm), yis the secondary emission
was varied between 0.5 and 2.5 mm. Electrical connectionto the water
for the cathode surface, p is the pressure (Pa) and A and
drops was made with 0.5 mm diameter platinum wire. A dc voltage
constants, dependent on the gas in which the
of 8 kV, switched with HV reed relays was applied to the water drop
between water drops, it is likely that
electrodes,producing a rectangular current pulse with duration of bea
cathode region is water vapor. In
tween 10 ms and 3 s. Discharge current was controlled by varying the
for A and B have been found [6]
series resistance in the circuit between 400 kQ and 2 MQ,
to be 12.9 and 289, respectively.Combining relations (1)and (2) gives
The appearance of the discharge was observed with a video camera an estimate of the length of the cathode-fallregion from the measured
and macro lens giving a magnification of 60 x when viewed on a value of the cathode fall voltage
video monitor. Individual frames were later digitized using a video
167 V,
frame grabber. Measurements of discharge dimensions were made
B p
from the digitized images with image-analysis software.




IEEE Transacfionson Dielecfricsand ElecfricalInsulafion

Vol. 4 No, 2, April 2997

Using an atmospheric pressure of 101.3 kPa, a measured cathode

fall voltage of 670 V (see Section 2.2.2) corresponding to a water drop
conductivity of 250 pScm-l, the estimated length of the cathode fall
region from Equation (3) is 3 . 8 loe3
~ cm.


0.3 and 0.6 mm over the current ran ;e 4 to 10 mA.The average current density from a large number of r ieasurements was found to have
an approximately constant value of 1.5Acmp2 over the 6 to 10 mA
current range, and was observed to b :independent of electrolyte conductivity. The distance of the disch: rge column frcm the insulating
0.4 mm for a dissurface at the center of the gap was typically
charge spacing of 2.5 mm.






Discharge gap length





2.0 m m


0.5 m m

1 z1 1:.



Discharge :urrent (mA)

Figure 5. Voltage-current curves for lirect current discharges of 10 ms
duration between water drop electrode j on PTFE. Electrode conductivity
250 WScm-l. Shaded area indicates reg ion of discharge instability.
Figure 4. Discharges between water drop electrodes for four discharge gaps. Discharge current constant at 5 mA,water drop conductivity 8000 pscm I . Material PTFE.

Increasing the conductivity of the water drops caused the structure of the negative glow and the Faraday dark space to be obscured
by an intense yellow region. Figure 4 shows discharges between water drops of 8000 pScm-l conductivity, with a current of 5 mA.The
region of the discharge near the cathode is highly luminous with a yellow color typical of ionized sodium chloride. Reducing the distance
between the two electrodes while maintaining the current constant at
5 mA (Figure 4), showed that the length of the highly luminous region remained approximately constant at ,-., 1mm. The remainder of
the discharge consisted of the less luminous blue color of the positive
column. None of the structural features seen in the longer discharges
were observed in 0.5 and 1.0 mm long discharges, the color was entirely that of the regions near the cathode, the appearance in this case
is consistent with the small discharges observed between water drops
on hydrophobic surfaces (Figure 1, bottom).
Estimates of the average discharge diameter and current density at
the cathode were made by measuring the diameter of the discharge
from video images. The measured discharge diameter was between


Discharge gap length



2.0 mm

1.0 m m



z 800









Discharcre ( urrent (mA)

Figure 6. Voltage-current curves for lirect current discharges of 10ms
duration between water drop electrode ;on PTFE. Electrode conductivity
1000 WScm-'. Shaded area indicates re ;ion of discharge instability

Blackmore et al.: Surface Discharges on Polymeric Insulator Shed Surfaces


Discharge gap length









1 I111111


I Ill

Electrode fall voltage

7 6 -

5 -



a , 3 -

2 -

Discharge current 10 m A

Discharge current (m A)

1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1



I Ill,l,



Figure 7. Voltage-current curves for discharges of 10 ms duration between water drop electrodes on PTFE. Electrode conductivity
16000 F'3cm-l. Shaded area indicates region of discharge instability.


Voltage-current characteristics were measured for a range of rectangular current pulses of the type described in Section 2.2. The voltage and current values were determined as average values over the
duration of the rectangular current pulse. To account for the internal resistance of the water drops, the resistance between the platinum
probes and the water drop surface was estimated for each water drop
conductivity by bridging the discharge gap with a small piece of platinum wire. The resistance values so obtained were then used to correct the measured discharge voltages. Voltage-current characteristics
curves for various water drop conductivities are shown in Figures 5
to 7. The voltage-current relationship was found to be approximately
linear above a certain threshold current that was dependent on the
discharge gap length and water drop Conductivity. It was observed
that for currents below the linear region, the discharge current became unstable and was sustained as a series of current pulses. The
region of unstable current is indicated by the shading in Figures 5 to
The negative slopes of the V - I characteristics can be accounted
for by considering the conditions in the positive column. When the
length of the discharge is large, a significant proportion of the discharge voltage is produced across this column, and the voltage fall
at the cathode is nearly constant with current 171. Increasing the discharge current increases the temperature of the positive column due
to increased ohmic loss. This results in a decrease in the density of the
gas in the discharge region, increasing the ratio of the electric field E
to the neutral number density N . Ionization in the positive column
of a glow discharge, is due to electron impact ionization and is therefore dependent on E / N . An increase in temperature will therefore
increase the ionization rate, and thus lower the electric field required
to produce sufficient ionization to support the discharge current, resulting in the observed negative-sloping characteristic.



The total electrode fall voltage of the discharge was estimated

by extrapolating the data for discharge voltage as a function of gap
length, for a given current, to zero gap length. This is an acceptable
procedure as the lengths of the cathode and anode-fall regions are
much less than the length of the positive column. The total electrode
voltage fall, which is the sum of the voltage falls of the cathode and
anode, are displayed as a function of water-drop conductivity in Figure 8, for a discharge current of 10 mA. As the anode fall voltage of a
glow discharge is known to be of the order of the ionization potential
of the gas, the anode fall voltage is likely to be 5 25 V; this being the
highest ionization potential of any of the atomic or molecular species
present in the discharge [6]. 25 V is only 5% of the total electrode fall,
therefore the curves of Figure 8 can be taken as the cathode-fall voltage. The decrease in cathode-fall voltage with water-drop conductivity apparent in Figure 8. indicates that secondary electron emission increases with increasing water drop conductivity. Variation in
cathode-fallover the current range 5 to 12 mA was < 12% for 250 and
< 5%for 1000, 8000 and 16000 pScm-' water drops over the same
current range. Voltage gradients in the positive column were obtained
from the data of Figures 5 to 7. Values obtained for 10 mA are indicated in Figure 8. which shows that the positive column gradient is
approximately constant with respect to water-drop conductivity. The
positive column potential gradient was found to have a significant
dependence on discharge current following the empirical relation
E = 267 - 8.81


where E is the voltage gradient in Vmm-l, and I is the discharge

current in mA. This provides further evidence that heating in the positive column is responsible for the falling V - I characteristic, and
that electron production processes in the cathode and discharge regions can be considered independently.

IEEE Transacfionson Dielectrics and Electrical Insulation

Vol. 4 No. 2, April 1997

Table 1. Time to lose hydrophobicity for a range of polymeric insulating materials with average discharge cui rents of 0.5 and 5 mA. Discharge
gap 2 mm, water drop conductivity 1(00 LScm-'. * Material ablated
without loss of hydrophobicity.



With the experimental arrangement described in Section 2, a discharge only occursbetween the water drops while the surface remains
hydrophobic. When a discharge is struck on an EPDM or silicone rubber surface, loss of hydrophobicity occurs, causing the water drop
cathode to extend across the surface towards the anode, eventually
bridging the discharge gap. In contrast, PTFE does not lose hydrophobicity during a discharge, even as material is being ablated from the
surface, and thus prevents the water drops from joining. It was observed that the time required to lose hydrophobicity was dependent
on the type of material over which the discharge occurred. The ability
of a number of polymeric materials to withstand surface discharging
before loss of hydrophobicity was assessed using this observation.
This was done by measuring the duration of discharging before hydrophobicity was lost, and water completely bridged the discharge
gap. The duration was determined by observing the sudden drop
in the discharge voltage that occurred when the discharge gap was
bridged by water from the cathode. Tests were made by applying an
8 kV voltage step to a 2.0 mm water drop gap with a series resistor
to limit the discharge current. Unless otherwise stated, the electrical
conductivity of the water drops was 1000 pScm-' for all experiments
reported in Section 3.






EPDM B r a n d A

RTV silicone rubber

HTV silicone rubber

EPDM Brand B






" 1I

Mean time tl) lose hydrophobicity

HTV silicone
RTV silicone


> 20co
172 1
3C 0
32 3
97 6



Figure 9 shows the relationship bet Neen the duration of discharging before loss of hydrophobicity a i d discharge current for two
brands of EPDM (denoted A and B), 11neHTV silicone rubber material cut from the weather sheds of con posite insulators, and one RTV
material manufactured from unfilled F TV compound. Brand A EPDM,
and the HTV and RTV silicones were t le same materials used for the
salt fog tests in Section 2. After loss of iydrophobicity,silicone rubber
samples had a region of wettable sur 'ace 0.5 mm wide between
the original location of the water dro]js. Other than having a loss of
hydrophobicity, the surface appeared undamaged. From Figure 9 it
can also be seen that the time to lose 1 ydrophobicity for the RTV silicone rubber was lower than the HTV r laterial at the 5 mA level. This
is most likely due to the absence of th :rmally conductive fillers such
as ATH in the RTV specimens.

The EPDMsamples, when subjected to discharge currents of below

5 mA, required 1 to 2 s to produce a oss of hydrophobicity. Under
these conditions the surface had regi ins of increased roughness in
the area exposed to the discharge. E) amination of the affected area
with a scanning electron microscopesl owed a surface consistent with
ablation of surface polymer, exposing :he underlying ATH filler.
The resistance to loss of hydropho iicity by surface discharges of
a number of polymeric materials was tetermined at average currents
of 0.5 and 5 mA, and are shown in Tab e 1. From Table 1it can be seen
that the silicone materials lost hydropl iobicity in a significantly shorter time than all of the other materials tl ,sted. It was also observed that
the duration of discharging required tc produce loss of hydrophobicity in the HTV silicone rubber, sometimlbs fell to 10 ms for discharge
currents of < 1mA (Figure 9). The re ason for this effect is currently
not clear.


Average discharge current (m A)

Figure 9. Time to lose hydrophobicity as a function of discharge

current for EPDM and silicone rubber. Water drop conductivity
1000 LScm-l, contact angle 60, water drop separation 2 mm. Error
bars indicate 90% confidence intervals. EPDM A, B and HTV cut from
the weathersheds of composite insulators, RTV material manufactured
from unfilled RTV methyl-silicone compound.


The conductivity and contact angle of the water drops was varied
to determine the effect on the time to ose hydrophobicity. Figure 10

Blackmore et al.: Surface Discharges on Polymeric InsulaforShed Surfaces



- Time to lose hydrophobicity

E no0





- 2.8 E




- 2.4 .%




Power dissipated in cathode region







From observations of an isolated discharge on HTV silicone rubber it was observed that the loss of hydrophobicity proceeds from
the cathode to the anode, the duration of discharging increases with
decreasing conductivity and increasing cathode voltage, and that directing the cathode region of the discharge away from the surface by
reducing the contact angle, increases the time to lose hydrophobicity.
All these observations indicate that the region of the discharge near
the cathode is primarily responsible for the loss of hydrophobicity.

A qualitative understanding of why the region near the cathode is

more affected than other regions, can be obtained by considering the
power dissipated in the cathode region and the positive column of
discharge. It was shown earlier that the length of the cathode-fall
region for a discharge between 250 pScm-l water drops is of the orWater drop conductivity ( pS c m )
der of 3 . 8 l~o p 3 cm, and the cathode voltage is 670 V.For a current
Figure 10. Time to lose hydrophobicity of silicone rubber and power
density of 4.5 Acm-l and a discharge current of 10 mA, the power
dissipated in the cathode region as a function of water drop conductivity.
density in the volume of the cathode fall region is 7 9 3 x lo3 Wcm-3.
Discharge current 5 mA, contact angle 60"water drop separation 2 mm.
corresponding power density in the positive column of the same
Error bars indicate 90% confidence intervals.
discharge with a potential gradient of 1790 Vcm-l is 8 x lo3 W C ~ - ~ .
shows that increasing the conductivity of the water drop solution in- The large difference between the power density at the cathode and in
creased the time required to lose hydrophobicity Reducing the con- the positive column implies that the temperature in the region near
tact angle of the drop by removing some of the water, produced a the cathode will be significantly higher than that of the discharge coldramatic increase in the time required to produce loss of hydropho- umn. It should be noted however, that a significant amount of cooling
bicity The average times for loss of hydrophobicity were 122 ms for will occur due to the evaporation of water from the cathode surface.
60", 212 ms for 45" and 1661 ms for 30". This can be explained by the Figure 10 shows curves for the time to lose hydrophobicity and the
appearance of the discharge under these conditions. It was observed power dissipated in the cathode region calculated as the product of
that the bright negative regions of the discharge occurred perpendic- the discharge current and cathode voltage. It can be seen that the time
ular to the cathode. When the contact angle was reduced, the negative to lose hydrophobicity is strongly related to the power dissipated in
regions of the discharge were directed away from the surface. Reduc- the cathode region.
ing the contact angle also increases the time to loss of hydrophobicity,
and this suggests that the negative regions of the discharge play a
dominant role in the loss of hydrophobicity process.
It has been shown that low-current discharges between water drop


It is well known that silicone rubber materials recover hydrophobicity lost by surface discharging after a suitable rest period. It has
also been shown [8] that the recovery of hydrophobicity of these materials after surface discharging is primarily due to the diffusion of low
molecular weight silicone chains from the material bulk. To examine
this effect, the resistance to loss of hydrophobicity for the HTV and
RTV silicone rubber materials after recovery was assessed. Discharges
were produced on samples to cause an initial loss of hydrophobicity.
The samples were then stored in an air conditioned room at 2 4 f 3 " C .
The hydrophobicity, as measured by contact angle was found to recover to a static angle of 60" after a rest period of 6 h. The resistance to loss of hydrophobicity, for the two types of silicone rubber
recovered to that of the virgin material after the same period. This
suggests that the degradation produced by the discharge in destroying hydrophobicity is limited to a surface layer.

electrodes such as those that occur on wet and polluted hydrophobic

insulator surfaces, are a form of glow discharge occurring at atmospheric pressure. Glow discharge plasmas are known to be rich in
excited species, therefore making it likely that the observed loss of
hydrophobicity is due to a complex combination of the high discharge
temperature, and the plasma chemistry of the water vapor and air in
which the discharge occurs.
Discharges between water drops on a hydrophobic surface in salt
fog (Figure 1) appear to the naked eye as featureless points of light
and are similar in appearance to the experimentally observed discharge between water drops for short lengths of < 1mm (Figure 4).
The study of longer discharges revealed a previously unreported discharge structure similar to that of a low pressure glow discharge, and
enabled the assessment of the cathode fall voltage.
In the work reported in this paper, it was observed that discharges
of the type produced between water drops occurred only on hydrophobic surfaces. If the discharge removed the surface hydrophobicity then the water drops joined, extinguishing the discharge. The
duration of discharging required to produce this effect was used as a
quantitative measure of the resistance to loss of hydrophobicity. Of

IEEE Transactionson Dielectrics and Electrical Insulation

Vol. 4 No. 2, April 1997

the materials tested, it was found that that the silicone rubber materials were significantly less resistant to loss of hydrophobicity than the
EPDM materials, suggesting a different mechanism of hydrophobicity
loss. The experiments also indicate that the loss of hydrophobicity occurs in the region of the discharge near the cathode and that the rate
of loss of hydrophobicity is directly related to the power dissipated in
the cathode region. Although the results presented indicate that silicone rubber is less resistant to loss of hydrophobicity than EPDM, it
should be noted that EPDM materials are not able to provide the same
degree of hydrophobicity recovery as silicone rubber. Furthermore,
EPDM tends to become permanently hydrophilic after a short time in
service [9], primarily due to the effects of ultra-violet radiation. The
time to lose hydrophobicity must not by itself be taken as a measure
of the usefulness of any type of material for power system insulation.
Silicone rubber insulators rely on the property of hydrophobicity to
limit surface discharges and associated erosion damage. Hydrophobicity may however be lost during wet and polluted conditions, and
once lost, performance becomes dependent on the resistance to tracking and erosion, rather than the ability to suppress surface discharges.
This was clearly demonstrated by Gorur et al. [lo] in salt fog trials,
where silicone rubber cable terminations subjected to a cycle of 22 h
of fog followed by a recovery period of 2 h performed significantly
worse than similar cable terminations subjected to a cycle of 22 h of
salt fog followed by a 24 h recovery period. Both experiments were
for the same total hours of salt fog. The difference in performance was
attributed to the longer recovery period which allowed a greater recovery of surface hydrophobicity, which was subsequently lost during
the salt fog cycle. The resistance to loss of hydrophobicity of materials
is therefore of practical importance as it will influence the time that
an insulator subjected to an extreme pollution event can maintain hydrophobicity, thereby suppressing high level surface discharges that
are the cause of tracking and erosion damage, and that ultimately can
lead to insulator failure. Ideally the resistance to loss of hydrophobicity should be such that the worst pollution event expected at a
particular site does not produce a total loss of hydrophobicity.
The experiment presented in this paper provides a quantitative
method to assess the relative resistance to loss of hydrophobicity due
to surface discharges, and may provide a means to further study the
effects of material formulation on the resistance to loss of hydrophobicity. For practical insulator designs, improvements in the resistance
to loss of hydrophobicity can be expected to increase the time that
hydrophobic materials suppress surface discharges during wet and
polluted conditions, and so reduce the duration and magnitude of
damaging high level discharge activity. This would be reflected in
improved performance in laboratory aging tests such as cyclic salt
fog tests, and in service, where pollution events occur at intervals sufficient to allow the recovery of hydrophobicity.


MALL discharges occurring on the surfaces of polymeric insulatng materials between electrodes of an aqueous NaCl solution are
a form of glow discharge, stable at atmospheric pressure. Evidence
supporting this conclusion includes a high cathode fall voltage, dependent on the conductivity of the water drop solution, HV gradient


in the discharge column, dependent (In the discharge current, and a

physical structure similar to a low prr s u r e glow discharge.
Discharges between water-drop ell ctrodesproduce localized loss
of hydrophobicity on silicone rubber ind EPDM surfaces. The loss of
hydrophobicity is predominantly caur ed by the cathode region of the
discharge. The rate of loss of hydro ihobicity was found to be dependent on water drop conductivity vith discharges between water
drops of 250 pScm- conductivity, prc ducing a more rapid loss of hydrophobicity than discharges betweer water drops of 16000 pScmpl
conductivity. Loss of hydrophobicity a nd degradation of polymer surfaces due to surface discharging is likely to be due to a combination
of thermal and plasma chemistry effe :ts. A method for quantitatively assessing the resistance of polymeric insulating materials to loss
of hydrophobicity by surface discharf e has been demonstrated. This
technique could find application in t le study of outdoor polymeric

The authors sincerely thank Assoc ate Professor G. A. Woolsey of
the University of New England for hi 3 assistance in interpreting the
experimental data, and his commentl , which greatly improved this
paper. The authors also wish to ackno Nledge the financial support of
the Australian Electricity Supply IndL stry Research Board.

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