A material that blocks the flow of electric current across it. Insulators are to be distinguished from electrolytes, which are electronic insulators but ionic conductors. Electric insulators are used to insulate electric conductors from one another and to confine electric currents to specified pathways, as in the insulation of wires, electric switchgear, and electronic components. They provide an electrical, mechanical, and heat-dissipation function. The electrical function of an insulator is characterized by its resistivity, its dielectric strength (breakdown voltage), and its dielectric constant (relative permittivity). Insulators can be solid, liquid, or gaseous.
The resistivity of a material is a measure of the electric current density that flows across it in response to an applied electric field. Solid and liquid insulators have direct-current resistivities of 1010 ohm-meters at room temperature as compared to 10-8 &OHgr;-m for a good metal or 10-3 &OHgr;-m for a fast ionic conductor. See Band theory of solids, Electrical resistance, Electrical resistivity, Semiconductor
A material used in the electrical industry for insulation, capacitors, or encapsulation may be exposed to large voltage gradients that it must withstand for the operating life of the system. Failure occurs if an electric short-circuit develops across the material. Such a failure is called dielectric breakdown. The breakdown voltage gradient, expressed in kilovolts per millimeter, is a measure of the dielectric strength. Dielectric breakdown of a solid is destructive; liquids and gases are self-healing.
An insulator is also known as a dielectric. The dielectric constant k is defined as the ratio of the capacitance of a flat-plate condenser, or capacitor, with a dielectric between the plates to that with a vacuum between the plates; this ratio is also the relative permittivity of the dielectric. The dielectric constant is a measure of the ability of the insulator to increase the stored charge on the plates of the condenser as a result of the displacement of charged species within the insulator. See Capacitance, Capacitor, Dielectric materials, Permittivity
Successful application of solid insulating materials also depends on their mechanical properties. Insulation assemblies commonly must withstand thermal-expansion mismatch, tension, compression, flexing, or abrasion as well as a hostile chemical-thermal environment. The introduction of cracks promotes the penetration of moisture and other contaminants that promote failure, and the presence of pores may cause damaging corona discharge on the surface of a high-voltage conductor. As a result, composite materials and engineered shapes must be tailored to meet the challenges of a particular operational environment.
For example, glasses and varnishes are used as sealants, and oil is used to impregnate high-voltage, paper-insulated cables to eliminate air pockets. Porcelain is a commonly used material for the suspension of high-voltage overhead lines, but it is brittle. Therefore, a hybrid insulator was developed that consists of a cylindrical porcelain interior covered by a mastic sealant and a silicone elastomer sheath heat-shrunk onto the porcelain core. The circular fins of the outer sheath serve to shed water. However, twisted-pair cables insulated with poly(tetrafluoroethylene) are used for high-speed data transmission where a small dielectric constant of the insulator material is needed to reduce signal attenuation.
Liquid or gas insulation provides no mechanical strength, but it may provide a cheap, flexible insulation not subject to mechanical failure. Biphenyls are used as insulating liquids in capacitors; alkyl benzenes in oil-filled cables; and polybutenes for high-pressure cables operating at alternating-current voltages as high as 525 kV. Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is a nonflammable, nontoxic electron-attracting gas with a breakdown voltage at atmospheric pressure more than twice that of air. Fluorocarbons such as C2F6 and C4F8 as well as the Freons are also used, and breakdown voltages have been increased significantly in gas mixtures through a synergistic effect. Used as an insulating medium in high-voltage equipment at pressures up to 10 atm (1 megapascal), sulfur hexafluoride can reduce the size of electrical substations by a factor of 10 over that of air-insulated equipment. Enclosure of metal cable in a metallic conduit filled with sulfur hexafluoride gas has been used to shield nearby workers from exposure to high electric fields.
Finally, the ability to transfer heat may be an overriding consideration for the choice of an electric insulator. Electrical machines generate heat that must be dissipated. In electronic devices, the thermal conductivity of the solid substrate is a primary consideration. Where mechanical considerations permit, circulating liquid or gaseous insulation is commonly used to carry away heat. Liquids are particularly good transporters of heat, but they are subject to oxidation. In transformers, for example, the insulators are generally mineral or synthetic oils that are circulated, in some places with gaseous nitrogen to inhibit oxidation, to carry away the heat generated by the windings and magnetic core.