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The history of transformers began with that of electricity itself. As voltages became ever higher, transformers became ever more powerful. GE Renewable Energy’s Grid Solutions’ ancestor companies played a pioneering role in that evolution.
Little did Michael Faraday know that his observation of electromagnetic induction in 1831 would revolutionize the application of electricity and lead to the development of transformers as a key segment of the electric power industry.
A number of pioneers (Nicolas Callen, Charles Page, Antoine Massen and Heinrich Ruhmkorff, among others) took Faraday’s discovery further, inducing a high voltage using a spark inductor – the forerunner of today’s transformer. Though it was considered a DC device, the spark inducer contributed significantly to the development of transformer technology.
By the 1850s, alternating current finally found its application in the form of electric lighting. In 1882, Lucien Gaulard from France and the Englishman, John Dixon Gibbs, patented a distributing power system that used alternating current with two-coil induction devices linked by an open iron core. By 1883, devices, now known as secondary generators, were used in the first alternating current distribution system to light a 12-kilometer section of the London Underground. At the same time, in Italy, all the stations of the Torino-Lanzo railway line where equipped with electric lighting, the most distant lamp being situated 40 km away from the 2000 Volt generator operating at 133 Hz frequency. The following year, George Westinghouse realized the potential of secondary generators and developed the first high-powered device that could be manufactured cost-effectively. This device was the first commercial application of the “induction coil”, lighting offices and shops in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Around the same time, the Ganz Company in Budapest created a closed-core device (the “ZBD” system). In its patent application, it was referred to as a “transformer”. The name has stuck ever since.
As production lines started up at the end of the 19th century, the transformer became an essential device for the transmission and distribution of electric power. One of the manufacturing pioneers was Compagnie Francaise Thomson-Houston (CFTH) in Paris, an ancestor company of GE’s that began production in 1893.
Fig. 1: Thomson-Houston opens a subsidiary in Hamburg, Germany.
At this time, manufacturers worked largely with local utilities for local industrial needs. Rated power was only a few thousand kVA and voltage levels a few kV.
The huge increase in demand for electric power led to more generation, more transmission and considerably higher voltages.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a major voltage leap to 220 kV as well as the merger of CFTH and Société Alsacienne de Construction Mécanique leading to the creation of ALS.THOM in 1928. The 40 MVA – 220 kV three-phase transformer destined for customer Énergie Électrique du Rhin in 1932 is a great example of the transformers that were manufactured by the company during this period (Fig. 4). Another major step was achieved as transformers reached 400 kV by the 1950s, while the 1960s witnessed the first 800 kV networks. This huge and rapid development was only possible thanks to improvements in transformer technology, design, manufacturing and materials. In particular, insulating materials – paper, pressboard, oil, silicon steel – have made great advances; in fact, it can be said that transformer development helped to boost the steel, paper and oil industries.
Fig. 2 - A 1928 air-cooled three-phase transformer (4,000 A/13.2 kV) manufactured by GE Grid Solutions’ ancestor company CFTH in Saint-Ouen, France.
Fig. 3 - 1932: ALS.THOM’s three-phase transformer destined for customer Énergie Électrique du Rhin was manufactured in Saint-Ouen
As one of the pioneers of transformers, GE’s Grid Solutions business and its legacy Grid companies have made major contributions to the sector with patents and technological breakthroughs. For example, as the requirement to factory test transformers for resilience to the transient voltages from lightning strikes on the overhead transmission lines became commonplace, the interleaved disc winding was patented by English Electric in the UK in 1947 (British Patent 587997 “Improvements in inductive windings”). The first 1,050 kV transformer for extra-high voltage test lines was delivered to EDF for its test platform at Les Renardières, France in the 1960s.
Fig. 4: The World's most powerful transformer at that time: 345 MVA 22.5 / 160 kV. Reference New Scientist 2 April 1959
Fig. 5: GE's first 1,050 kV transformer for extra-high voltage test lines in the 1960s
In the subsequent five decades, Grid Solutions factories in Saint-Ouen (France), Stafford (UK), and Gebze (Turkey) showcased some of the world’s largest power transformers. They have produced some of the most complex and advanced special transformers and reactors (including Quadrature Boosters, Series and Shunt Reactors and transformers for industrial and traction applications). To shed more light, in the late 1960s Stafford manufactured the largest 600 MVA generator step-up transformers at that time for UK Central Electricity Generating Board for new power stations such as Didcot A and Pembroke. Since 1997, nine quadrature booster transformers were supplied to UK National Grid Co with ratings up to 2750 MVA (throughput). In 2010, the largest special transformer in the world, the 300 MVA 34.5/1,683-1,119 kV electric arc furnace transformer, was manufactured at Grid Solutions’ site in Gebze, Turkey.
As large emerging economies have begun expanding or strengthening their networks, so the need to transmit high-voltage DC power over long distances has also been growing rapidly. This has meant investing in the development and production of new, more powerful transformers for DC networks. Since delivering HVDC converter transformers for the France-UK HVDC link in 1981, Grid Solutions has been in the vanguard of this evolution, developing transformer technology to match the specifications of DC current.
|1831||Michael Faraday demonstrates the principle of electromagnetic induction|
|1836||Nicolas Callan increases the voltage generated by using a two-coil converter|
|1853||Heinrich Ruhmkorff builds a spark inductor – a high-voltage transformer|
|1882-83||Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs patent a distributing power system. that uses alternating current with two-coil induction devices. In 1883, secondary generators are used to light a 12-kilometer section of the London Underground|
|1885||K. Zipernowsky, O. Bláthy and M. Déri patent the “ZBD transformer”|
|1886||George Westinghouse produces the first commercial “induction coil”|
|1893||Creation of Compagnie Française Thomson Houston; start of transformer production in Paris in cooperation with the future General Electric Corporation of the USA.|
|Early 20th century||Voltage leap to 220 kV|
|1928||Merger of CFTH and Société Alsacienne de Construction Mécanique to create ALS.THOM|
|1929||3.5 MVA-100/27.7 kV inter-connection transformer|
|1933||40 MVA-220/8.8 kV three-phase transformer|
|Mid of 20th century||400 kV voltage level achieved|
|1947||Interleaved disc winding patented by English Electric in the UK|
|1960s||Advent of the first 800 kV networks|
|Grid Solutions manufactures largest 600 MVA generator transformers|
|End 1980s||Manufacture of amorphous core distribution transformers|
|End 1990s||Hermetically sealed power transformers|
|2006||First vegetable-oil 245 kV shunt reactors|
|2007||The World’s largest electric arc furnace transformer (300 MVA)|
|2010||UHVDC 800 kV prototype transformer produced and tested for the planned Chinese UHVDC network|
|2015||GE acquires Alstom Grid which becomes Grid Solutions|
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