Fixing the Grid, One Atom at a Time

IBM scientists and ABB, the world’s largest builder of electric grids, are using computer simulations to potentially develop a new type of insulator that will protect the grid from material deterioration caused by the environment, including pollution, humidity and high winds. This new high-voltage insulator can help reduce the energy loss during transmission, which in turn, can ease the strain on the grid.
"It's like going to the market and buying a full container of milk and then arriving at home to see a glassful has disappeared," explains Dr. Philip Shemella at IBM Research - Zurich. "Using supercomputers we can simulate at the molecular level how the insulators are damaged by the environment and design them to be more efficient and reliable."

A Collaboration of Skills

Started more than two years ago, IBM and ABB scientists in Switzerland formed a joint project to simulate the molecular dynamics of the insulators, which are made of silicon rubber, scientifically known as Polymethylhydrosiloxane or PDMS. The goal of the project was to better understand the physical processes and potential for improved design methods of high-voltage insulation materials.
"IBM brings its extensive expertise in complex computer simulation and we bring over 125 years of experience with electricity," said Dr. Oliver Fritz, ABB researcher, based in Baden-Dattwil, Switzerland.
Using an IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer and massively parallel algorithms, the scientists were able to simulate and study the individual molecules used in the silicon rubber to better understand how it reacts to damage caused by the environment.
With advanced simulations and the computing power available, the scientists were able to simulate realistic models of the material comprising approximately one million atoms. These simulations will lead to testing new materials in the silicon rubber composition to improve their resiliency to damage.
The findings, published today in The Journal of Physical Chemistry B, DOI: 10.1021/jp207589p in a paper titled "Surface Dynamics of Amorphous Polymers Used for High-Voltage Insulators" helps to unravel the mechanism of water repulsion on the insulator surface.
"Currently, we are running simulations to study how a drop of water affects the reliability of the insulating material. Surprisingly, this is very significant, particularly when it is extrapolated across the entire power grid," adds Shemella.

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