Why There Is Transformer Heating?

In a real transformer, some power is dissipated in the form of heat. A portion of these power losses occur in the conductor windings due to electrical resistance and are referred to as copper losses.

However, so-called iron losses from the transformer core are also important. The latter result from the rapid change of direction of the magnetic field, which means that the microscopic iron particles must continually realign themselves—technically, their magnetic moment—in the direction of the field (or flux).

Just as with the flow of charge, this realignment encounters friction on the microscopic level and therefore dissipates energy, which becomes tangible as heating of the material.

Taking account of both iron and copper losses, the efficiency (or ratio of electrical power out to electrical power in) of real transformers can be in the high 90% range. Still, even a small percentage of losses in a large transformer corresponds to a significant amount of heat that must be dealt with.

In the case of small transformers inside typical household adaptors for low-voltage d.c. appliances, we know that they are warm to the touch.

Yet they transfer such small quantities of power that the heat is easily dissipated into the ambient air (bothering only conservatio nminded analysts, who note the energy waste that could be avoided by unplugging all these adaptors when not in use).

By contrast, suppose a 10-MVA transformer at a distribution substation operates at an efficiency of 99%: A 1% loss here corresponds to a staggering 100 kW.

In general, smaller transformers like those on distribution poles are passively cooled by simply radiating heat away to their surroundings, sometimes assisted by radiator vanes that maximize the available surface area for removing the heat.

Large transformers like those at substations or power plants require the heat to be removed from the core and windings by active cooling, generally through circulating oil that simultaneously functions as an electrical insulator.

The capacity limit of a transformer is dictated by the rate of heat dissipation. Thus, as is true for power lines, the ability to load a transformer depends in part on ambient conditions including temperature, wind, and rain.

For example, if a transformer appears to be reaching its thermal limit on a hot day, one way to salvage the situation is to hose down its exterior with cold water—a procedure that is not “by the book,” but has been reported to work in emergencies.

When transformers are operated near their capacity limit, the key variable to monitor is the internal or oil temperature. This task is complicated by the problem that the temperature may not be uniform throughout the inside of the transformer, and damage can be done by just a local hot spot. Under extreme heat, the oil can break down, sustain an electric arc, or even burn, and a transformer may explode.

A cooling and insulating fluid for transformers has to meet criteria similar to those for other high-voltage equipment, such as circuit breakers and capacitors: it must conduct heat but not electricity; it must not be chemically reactive; and it must not be easily ionized, which would allow arcs to form.

Mineral oil meets these criteria fairly well, since the long, nonpolar molecules do not readily break apart under an electric field.

Another class of compounds that performs very well and has been in widespread use for transformers and other equipment is polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs.

Because PCBs and the dioxins that contaminate them were found to be carcinogenic and ecologically toxic and persistent, they are no longer manufactured in the United States; the installation of new PCB-containing utility equipment has been banned since 1977.

However, much of the extant hardware predates this phase-out and is therefore subject to careful maintenance and disposal procedures (somewhat analogous to asbestos in buildings).

Introduced in the 1960s, sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is another very effective arcextinguishing fluid for high-voltage equipment. SF6 has the advantage of being reasonably nontoxic as well as chemically inert, and it has a superior ability to withstand electric fields without ionizing.

While the size of transformers and capacitors is constrained by other factors, circuit breakers can be made much smaller with SF6 than traditional oil-filled breakers.

However, it turns out that SF6 absorbs thermal infrared radiation and thus acts as a greenhouse gas when it escapes into the atmosphere; it is included among regulated substances in the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change.

SF6 in the atmosphere also appears to form another compound by the name of trifluoromethyl sulfur pentafluoride (SF5CF3), an even more potent greenhouse gas whose atmospheric concentration is rapidly increasing. This surprising and unfortunate characteristic may motivate future restriction of SF6 use.

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