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close this bookIntroduction to Electrical Engineering - Basic vocational knowledge (Institut für Berufliche Entwicklung, 213 p.)
close this folder6. Electrical Field
View the document6.1. Electrical Phenomena in Non-conductors
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6.1. Electrical Phenomena in Non-conductors

Electrical phenomena also occur in non-conductors. This becomes clearly evident in lightning during thunder-storms. A lightning may occur between two clouds or between cloud and earth. The cause of a lighting is a sudden charge equalisation between differently charged clouds or between different states of charge of cloud and earth. The form of discharge usually is a forked lightning. The voltage involved in lightning is about 100 · 106 V, the current intensity about 50 kA. With a time of discharge of 1 ms, an energy of 1000 kWh is released. Unfortunately, advantage cannot be taken of this enormous quantity of energy. But we can protect ourselves from the dangerous effects of a lightning stroke with the help of modern technical means.

Charging with considerably lower energy takes also place due to friction between different materials, when different materials contact each other, electrons from one material can migrate to the other one. When the two materials a separated, they show different charges. Due to frequent repetition of these contacts and separations (as involved in friction), high differences in charge may occur so that discharge via a spark takes place. This phenomenon will occur only when the materials involved are extremely well insulating (in a high atmospheric humidity, many materials lose their high insulating capacity and the charges can flow off). Due to the low energy involved in the way of charging up described here, a primary danger is not given for man, but other dangers may occur due to the effects of fight or shock. Spark discharges may become dangerous when they occur in close vicinity of easily combustible liquids or explosive substances. For example, protective measures are necessary when petrol is pumped from a bulk lorry into a storage tank. To avoid spark discharge, bulk lorry and storage tank must be properly connected electrically conductive before petrol should be pumped. Force actions occur between charges. Dissimilar charges attract each other and correspondent charges repel each other (see also force actions between magnetic poles). In the printing industry this force action is disturbing. During the rapid passage of paper through the machine, the paper may be charged so that proper transport of the paper will be prevented. Similar phenomena occur in the textile industry.

Direction and intensity of the force action is described by field lines like in the magnetic field. In contrast to magnetic field lines, however, electrical field lines arise from and end in charges. The extent of the electrical field is three-dimensional. Fig. 6.1. shows a few typical courses of field lines.

Fig. 6.1. Characteristic patterns of electric field lines

When an electrical conductor is placed in an electrical field (Fig. 6.2.), the freely movable electrons are displaced. The side facing the negative charge is positively charged and the side facing the positive charge is negatively charged. This phenomenon is called electrostatic induction or influence.

Fig. 6.2. Influence in an electric field

Fig. 6.3. Electrical shielding

1 - Metal ring
2 - Field-free space

When a conductive ring is placed in an electrical field, in the interior of the ring, a field-free space is brought about (Fig. 6.3.). This phenomenon is called electrical shielding. It is used in practice to shield from interference fields. Complicated electronic measurements are token in Faraday’s cage (working room surrounded by a double wall of copper foil) or aerial lines and other signal lines are screened.

When the electrical field acts on a non-conductor (also known as dielectric), the not freely movable electrons can be displaced only insignificantly in the direction of the positive charge. This phenomenon is called dielectric polarisation (Fig. 6.4.).

Fig. 6.4. Dielectric polarisation

1 - Elementary particle of the dielectric

If dust particles are in an electrical field, they will be charged negatively or positively, depending on their composition, attracted by the electrode having the opposite charge and deposited there. Advantage is taken of this effect in flue-gas cleaning. Dust can be removed almost completely from flue gases by means of electrical filters. The consumption of electrical energy for 1000 m3 of flue gas to be cleaned is about 1 kWh. A voltage of about 50 kV is applied to the electrodes.

When relating the voltage between two charged plates to the distance between the latter, we obtain the field strength E.

E= I/l

[E] = V/m




electrical field, strength




distance between the plates

This simple method of calculating the field strength is only applicable to parallel field lines (in a homogeneous field). At points and edges, the field strength is considerably higher than in the vicinity of large-area electrodes.

When the field strength reaches a critical value, the dielectric is subjected to a flashover or breakdown and, hence, to a spark discharge. The field strength required for a breakdown is called breakdown field strength. It is a quantity which depends on material (see Table 6.1.). The breakdown field strength of air is considerably lower than that of strong insulating materials. Therefore, the distance between conductors carrying high-voltage in air must be larger than between these conductors sheathed with strong insulating materials. For example, a voltage of 330 kV can break through an distance in air of about 100 mm and through a rubber insulation of maximum 13.3 mm, however.

Table 6.1. Dielectric Strength of a Few Insulating Materials

Insulating material

Dielectric strength in kV/mm











aluminium oxide


Since at points and edges (small surface areas) a particularly high field strength is prevalent, flashovers preferably start from them. This phenomenon is utilised for lightning protection pointed metal rods are fastened to the highest point of buildings, the rods are connected with the ground in a properly conducting manner and so are capable of arresting lightings and carry them off to ground without any damage to the building. This point effect also entails remarkable disadvantages. Thus, charges are sparked off from lines carrying high-voltage; this leads to considerable energy losses. Therefore, it is necessary to enlarge the electrically effective surface of high-voltage lines and provide a smooth surface. An enlargement of the surface is obtained by bunch lines. The line is divided into 4 conductors which are combined into one stranded conductor by means of spacers (Fig. 6.5.). Potential rings are attached to Insulators. Great store should be set by carefully rounded edges and smooth undamaged surfaces.

Fig. 6.5. Sectional view of a stranded conductor for highest voltage

1 - Individual conductor
2 - Spacer
3 - Electrically effective surface

Brush discharges nevertheless occurring in extra-high voltage lines may cause luminous phenomena under certain atmospheric conditions which are called corona because of their ring shape.

Electrical phenomena also occur in non-conductors. They show different effects (lightning, spark discharge, force action). In electric filters, the force action is used for dust separation. Charges can be produced by a continuous contacting and separating (e.g. friction). Spark discharges can lead to uncontrolled actions of man due to fear, to fire and explosions. Spark discharges occur when the breakdown field strength is exceeded. Discharges primarily take place at points and edges; that is why in high-voltage engineering all conductive parts should be provided with large and smooth surfaces.

Questions and problems:

1. Quote examples of electrical phenomena in non-conductors!
2. How are charges brought about?
3. What are the facts described by the breakdown field strength?
4. Why have points and edges to be avoided in high-voltage engineering?