High-voltage innovation

Professor Ian Robert Jandrell, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at Wits University

Professor Ian Robert Jandrell, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at Wits University

Electrical engineering spans a wide area of research, understanding and study. One of these areas, though not the most popular among researchers, is fascinating. High-voltage (HV) engineering comprises unique studies that rely on access to impressive laboratory facilities and technical support – and on the fact that only a small community serves the very large utility sector. All of this tends to influence the number of experts in this area. Few are drawn to HV engineering research, and yet innovation within this field remains steady. This is thanks to the passion and innovation of researchers such as Professor Ian Robert Jandrell, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at Wits University.

“I did not choose to be a researcher or an academic,” says Jandrell, a professor who has graduated 10 doctoral and 11 Master’s students and published, along with his students and co-supervisors, 11 journal articles and more than 30 refereed conference papers in the past decade.

“I began my Master’s and the work I did in HV simply turned into a PhD – and I fell in love with the research. I also had a mentor who made me realise that research is just an organised way of managing curiosity and teaching others what you learn.”

Today there is an increased interest in HV direct current (DC) phenomena, and it is in this field that Jandrell is currently exploring more options. Like South Africa, most countries have national grids that run at an extremely HV alternating current (AC). This creates a negative half cycle and a positive half cycle. It means that electrons and charged particles behave in a very predictable way.

However, it is more logical and economical to interconnect grids and to transport DC voltage over long distances. It is for this reason that Jandrell and the team are focusing much of their current work on the specific physical effects of charged particles and the influence on the discharge processes under HV DC conditions.

“There is a rapidly growing need for research in DC, so we’re focusing on laboratory work to better understand the phenomena that come with it,” he explains. “We are working to uncover how we can ensure the safe and efficient transfer of energy and we are looking to how we can make these systems optimal to transfer energy. There is a huge economic benefit to this work as it will ensure that the systems are safer and the costs are lower than in the past.”

Research conducted by Jandrell and his team over the past few years has included the development of intricate laboratory set-ups and detailed mathematical and computer-designed modelling of corona under DC conditions. To date, no other model accounting for these effects has been produced.

Jandrell also conducts research on lightning and HV AC, and (in research undertaken with one of his collaborators at Wits University) was the first to identify voltage supply frequency as a factor influencing partial discharge measurements in cables. This was something that researchers hadn’t even considered.

“While the technical outputs are significant, I am particularly proud of the work where we have collaborated with psychologists, medical specialists, systems engineers and human factor specialists to create a trans-disciplinary space for our work,” concludes Jandrell.

“We want to know how we can build these massive electrical grids and integrate micro grids and alternative energy sources, while simultaneously dealing with politics and people across borders and boundaries.”