April 6, 2021 • Posted in Market Insights

Plastics Products for a Changing Climate

Every day we’re witnessing the detrimental effects of extreme weather on the environment. Warming temperatures are melting the polar ice caps, while high surface winds, hot and dry conditions contribute to destructive wildfires worldwide. As severe weather events become more frequent and damaging, power and electricity infrastructures need to be more resilient and adaptable to growing risks. To mitigate extreme weather effects, the M. Holland Technical Innovation Center has been at the forefront of developing plastic compounds for electrical wiring systems that prevent dangerous sparking and catastrophic failure caused by high winds and extreme temperatures. These products help eliminate or minimize environmental threats and electrical disruptions while also securing vital services.

Bringing the Heat: Electrical Wiring Insulation and Wildfire Prevention

Wildfires result from the convergence of three factors: dry vegetation, wind and an ignition source. A pattern of hotter, drier summers in California has set the stage for more of these scenarios. High winds during the season can cause trees or limbs to fall on uninsulated electrical lines or cause t­he wires to touch and spark. When sparks fall on dry vegetation, they ignite, and winds can spread the fire even farther. Within seconds, a disaster can threaten people, homes, businesses and entire ecosystems.

This situation isn’t theoretical. From 2014 to 2017, electrical utility equipment caused more than 1,500 wildfires in California, including the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive in its history. A study from the California Public Utilities Commission showed sparking wires falling on dry vegetation result in nearly half of all wildfires.

Power companies have tried to mitigate these instances by shutting off power during severe windy conditions (an unpopular option for obvious reasons) and installing underground cables. Burying cables underground is an effective solution. However, it is very time consuming and expensive to obtain right of way permits and to bore thru existing infrastructure. And while insulation for electrical wiring was already available, it wasn’t designed for the high voltages of overhead wiring or extreme weather conditions.

M. Holland’s scientists and engineers saw a clear need for an alternative solution. Three years ago, they went back to the drawing board and designed a new resin compound that could handle these conditions and environments for the long term.

To start, they identified five requirements for the new compound:

  • Track resistance. Tracking is an electrical degradation of the insulation which can occur when conductive particles such as dust and oil deposit on the surface of the cable.
  • High dielectric strength. Measured in volts per millimeter, this is the maximum electric field a material can withstand without breaking down and losing its insulating properties.
  • Mechanical qualities. The compound had to have high tensile strength, i.e., could handle a certain amount of stretching and be resistant to abrasions.
  • Resistant to sunlight. Over months and years, UV rays can cause significant degradation, resulting in brittleness and the loss of other qualities.
  • Crosslinked. When materials are crosslinked they no longer melt. By crosslinking the polymer, the insulation stays in place during emergency overload situations where conductor temperatures can rise above the normal melting point of the polymer.

By developing a masterbatch that satisfied these requirements and blending it with a base of high-density polyethylene resin, we developed an insulation compound grafted together with an electric cable during extrusion, resulting in the final crosslinked product.

The compound significantly outperformed existing products in rigorous testing:

  • In a heat aging test, it maintained its tensile and elongation properties over 21 days in 100° C (212° F) heat, indicating high stabilization. 
  • When subjected to a weatherometer, which simulates sunlight and rain in 18-hour cycles, the compound maintained 81% to 100% of its physical properties after 2,000 hours. Industry standards require materials to retain 75% of their physical properties after 720 hours to have an acceptable service life. The 2,000-hour data suggests a much longer service life than currently specified for sunlight resistant compounds.
  • Finally, the compound passed the ASTM D 2303 tracking test with no significant damage.

M. Holland’s access to suppliers of different types of high-density resins meant we could find resins that crosslinked with the masterbatch more effectively. This advantage led to less curing time after production, allowing our clients to ship their cables in half the time. Affordability combined with high performance made this revolutionary product a best-seller among electrical wiring cable makers worldwide.

Freezing Over: Safer Electric Cable for Frigid Environments

Warming temperatures continue melting ice shelves in the Arctic, which has opened previously inaccessible waterways for shipping lanes and potential drilling sites. As a result, there’s a growing need for high-performance wiring for ships and petrochemical plants that can withstand temperatures as low as -60° C (-75° F). In such harsh environments, power cables can easily become brittle and shatter or crack. These dangerous conditions can increase the risk of electrical system failures and fires, which can be catastrophic to both equipment and personnel.

As with the overhead wire insulation compound, M. Holland saw a growing need for an alternative arctic cable that maintained flexibility and resistance to impact in extreme cold conditions. The compound also needed to meet challenging tray cable flame standards and be resistant to oil and chemical exposure.

To meet these requirements, M. Holland created a compound that superseded existing standards, maintaining a unique balance of flexibility, tensile strength and flame retardancy in arctic conditions. The product is a major technical innovation that will support development in the Arctic region — safely.

Empowering Sustainability Innovations

The world’s electricity infrastructures must withstand and operate in a future of rising sea levels, droughts, extreme heat and natural disasters. At M. Holland, because we sit at the intersection of where raw materials become products, we have a unique opportunity to play an active role in sustainability innovation. The products highlighted above are just two examples of how we continuously look for opportunities to empower ourselves, our clients and suppliers to drive environmental advancements. For more information about sustainability in the plastics industry and at M. Holland, check out the sustainability episode in our 2021 Market Trends Podcast Series as well as our Sustainability and Wire & Cable market pages.

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