The University of Southampton

Southampton research is helping to improve undersea cable performance

Published: 10 April 2015

Southampton research is underpinning a new project that could revolutionise power cable performance.

The University of Southampton will be collaborating with energy companies, a technology innovation company and cable manufacturers to develop a new generation of insulation material for power cables, to improve their performance in onshore applications and for the growing offshore renewable energy industry.

The technology underpinning the project was initiated nearly two decades ago by University academic Professor Alun Vaughan and his team, who showed that by blending together different polymers it was possible to retain the desirable characteristics of each of the components and produce materials with significantly improved overall performance. They initially demonstrated the viability of this using different polyethylenes, before moving on to the much more challenging and novel case of polypropylene.

The attraction of polypropylene is that the resulting materials are able to withstand higher temperatures. In cable applications, this means that greater fluctuations in power flow can be accommodated, leading to improved reliability in future power networks that will include an increasing proportion of intermittent renewable generation. To achieve this, after the material development phase, the next steps will be to adapt the cable manufacturing process and to test the compatibility of the concept with the accessories system of the grid.

Over the past 20 years the concept has been developed and is now being translated to engineering a new generation of power cables with the new three-year SUSCABLE II project. The collaboration sees Southampton working with the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, GnoSys Global Ltd, National Grid, Scottish Power and cable manufacturers.

Alun, Head of the Electronics and Electrical Engineering research group in Electronics and Computer Science, said: “It is very rewarding to see work that we initiated as pure, curiosity-driven research being developed into real-world applications that can help provide solutions to some of the biggest energy transmission challenges facing the world today.

“We hope that the materials expertise that Southampton can bring to this collaboration will be fundamental in developing a medium voltage cable design that will be taken to market. Ultimately, our aim is to be at the forefront of this major change in cable technology and use this project as a springboard to develop high voltage cables using thermoplastics, which will provide better performance in service and can be recycled at the end of life.”

ORE Catapult Innovation Engineering & Programmes Director Chris Hill added: “Innovative technological improvements in the performance of onshore and undersea power cables is an important step in the drive to lengthen the life of connections between offshore wind turbines, and between wind and marine offshore renewable energy power stations and onshore connections, improving their ability to handle increasingly variable peak loads.

“Using innovative materials and testing their robustness and resilience in cable designs could lead to a step change in electrical cable technology, and ultimately drive down whole life network costs.”

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