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A greener games: how renewable oil helped power the athletes' village in Rio

By Scott Bowen August 25, 2016

Cargill has no relation to the Rio 2016 Games.

The athletes’ village in Rio is a mini-city in itself: 31 apartment buildings, each up to 17 stories high, in a complex that includes a cafeteria, a bank and a gym. More than 10,000 athletes and 6,000 coaches live in what’s been called the largest such village in the history of the Games.
The demand for electric power in the athletes’ village is huge, but the Brazilian utility company responsible for energy delivery, Light, has managed to fulfill this need with just three electrical transformers in a single power station, which takes up a notably smaller physical space than is typical.

The key to this energy innovation is Cargill Industrial Specialties’ Envirotemp™ FR3™ natural ester fluid, a renewable vegetable oil-based transformer oil that can help optimize transformer performance, reduce costs, and improve fire and environmental safety — all while increasing the reliability of the electrical grid.

In preparing for the project, Cargill and the transformer manufacturer supported Light during the commissioning of its initial FR3 fluid-filled power transformers. Cargill also supported Light in installing a storage tank for backup FR3 fluid to be used in case of an emergency or for maintenance.

“The value of ‘green’ transformers for Light is that we have sustainable development in our concession area [Rio de Janeiro], one that benefits the whole population,” Thiago Ribeiro Marcato Alves, Light engineer, said in a video interview.

Natural ester fluid and its benefits

In experiments going back to the mid-1990s, Cargill researchers* found that renewable natural ester fluid could prolong the life of electrical transformers and replace mineral oil, which had earlier replaced PCBs. The role of such a dielectric fluid is to act as a coolant and to prevent electrical failure, which can damage equipment and pose a fire hazard.

Three main benefits of FR3 fluid use — high fire safety, major environmental safety, and reduced investment and equipment costs — “make customers very happy,” said Marcelo Neves Martins, Cargill’s dielectric fluid business development manager, South America.

FR3 fluid can withstand temperatures of up to 360 degrees Celsius (680 degrees Fahrenheit) before igniting. Mineral oil can ignite at around 160 degrees Celsius (320 degrees Fahrenheit). The level of fire safety offered by FR3™ fluid was a major consideration for development of the substation that powers the area in and around the athletes’ village, according to Martins.

To date, more than 1 million FR3 fluid-filled power and distribution transformers are in operation globally, enabling significantly improved fire safety to millions of people and their communities.

“There are mineral [oil-filled transformer] fires every day,” David Bingenheimer, global technology manager at Cargill, said in a July 2016 interview with “There has never been a fire in an FR3-filled transformer.”

Being biodegradable in both soil and water, FR3 fluid significantly minimizes the environmental impact in case of an accidental spill. That’s a key factor for placing power stations in both human-populated areas and in environmentally sensitive places, such as waterways. In 2008, FR3 fluid was added to the USDA BioPreferred program, and in 2013 it was recognized with the EPA’s Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award.

Green cost savings

Equipment-cost reduction arises from the way FR3 fluid interacts chemically with the interior insulating components of a transformer. The wires inside a transformer are insulated by paper and paper-like board and submerged in the dielectric fluid. Water and heat can damage the insulation paper, making it frequently the Achilles’ heel of a transformer. FR3 fluid wicks water away from the paper, helping it resist water and temperature and extending the insulation life five to eight times longer than mineral oil.

“This helps optimize the design of a transformer — you can design for increased [power] capacity or extended life,” Martins said. “You can also have a transformer with a higher-temperature design to try to reduce the size of the equipment [better insulation allows compactness], reducing the area of a substation.”

As a result, you can design smaller, more cost-effective transformers with less expensive fire safety measures that do the same work as traditional transformers. The costs of transporting transformers to new or remote sites can also be reduced. Power-station locations can be optimized, and electrical grid reliability can be improved.

“Fire safety is a big bonus, but the really compelling trend right now for FR3 fluid [in South America] is about the reduced equipment cost,” Martins said. Cargill customers could save on the initial costs of deploying new equipment as well as extend the life of existing assets to help reduce replacement costs, he added.

Future benefits

Over the next two years, Cargill anticipates strong growth in FR3 fluid adoption and is ramping up production at its Mairinque plant, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, to meet the demand.

Cargill is now exploring other electrical equipment uses of its Envirotemp™ family of fluids, such as in switchgear for electrical transmissions and power capacitors. It is also looking at ways to expand the use of FR3 fluid technology into ultra-high-voltage transformers.

While FR3 fluid’s fire safety is a major factor in its use in the athletes’ village, a big emphasis over the next 20 years will be energy delivery. The evolving applications of Cargill’s agriculture-based technologies such as FR3 fluid will surely play a major role in addressing growing demand for energy around the world.

Through FR3 fluid optimization, Martins said, you have more power capacity with the same electrical equipment, “so you can reach many more people.”

*In 2012, Cargill purchased the dielectric fluids business from Cooper Power Systems.

Scott Bowen is a freelance writer and editor who has written for True/, and Fortune Small Business. His fiction has been anthologized in “Tight Lines: Ten Years of the Yale Anglers’ Journal.”

This article first appeared on CargillVoice on Forbes.