Mineral oil surrounding a transformer core-coil assembly enhances the dielectric strength of the winding and prevents oxidation of the core. Dielectric improvement occurs because oil has a greater electrical withstand than air and because the dielectric constant of oil (2.2) is closer to that of the insulation.
As a result, the stress on the insulation is lessened when oil replaces air in a dielectric system. Oil also picks up heat while it is in contact with the conductors and carries the heat out to the tank surface by selfconvection. Thus a transformer immersed in oil can have smaller electrical clearances and smaller conductors for the same voltage and kVA ratings.
Beginning about 1932, a class of liquids called askarels or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) was used as a substitute for mineral oil where flammability was a major concern. Askarel-filled transformers could be placed inside or next to a building where only dry types were used previously.
Although these coolants were considered nonflammable, as used in electrical equipment they could decompose when exposed to electric arcs or fires to form hydrochloric acid and toxic furans and dioxins. The compounds were further undesirable because of their persistence in the environment and their ability to accumulate in higher animals, including humans.
Testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shown that PCBs can cause cancer in animals and cause other noncancer health effects. Studies in humans provide supportive evidence for potential carcinogenic and noncarcinogenic effects of PCBs.
The use of askarels in new transformers was outlawed in 1977 (Claiborne, 1999). Work still continues to retire and properly dispose of transformers containing askarels or askarel-contaminated mineral oil. Current ANSI/IEEE standards require transformer manufacturers to state on the nameplate that new equipment left the factory with less than 2 ppm PCBs in the oil (IEEE, 2000).
Among the coolants used to take the place of askarels in distribution transformers are high-temperature hydrocarbons (HTHC), also called high-molecular-weight hydrocarbons. These coolants are classified by the National Electric Code as “less flammable” if they have a fire point above 300˚C.
The disadvantages of HTHCs include increased cost and a diminished cooling capacity from the higher viscosity that accompanies the higher molecular weight.
Another coolant that meets the National Electric Code requirements for a less-flammable liquid is a silicone, chemically known as polydimethylsiloxane. Silicones are only occasionally used because they exhibit biological persistence if spilled and are more expensive than mineral oil or HTHCs.
Mixtures of tetrachloroethane and mineral oil were tried as an oil substitute for a few years. This and other chlorine-based compounds are no longer used because of a lack of biodegradability, the tendency to produce toxic by-products, and possible effects on the Earth’s ozone layer.
Synthetic esters are being used in Europe, where high-temperature capability and biodegradability are most important and their high cost can be justified, for example, in traction (railroad) transformers.