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Connector Insights from iCONN

How Do Wet-Mate Connectors Work?

Posted by Rick Regole on Mon , July 27, 2020

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The first underwater electrical connector — a transatlantic communication cable — made a splash in 1858. In the early years, most underwater connectors were homemade using regular electrical components wrapped in rubber. Of course, they didn’t last long in subsea conditions (some less than one month). Saltwater, in particular, is extremely damaging to electrical assemblies due to its corrosive properties. If connector contacts or parts of the metal connector body are exposed to water, they will eventually corrode, causing electrical failure. Over the last 150 years, engineers have gone through many iterations to develop a better solution for underwater applications. Enter the “wet-mate” connector category.

A wet-mate connector is uniquely designed to be mated or unmated in wet environments. Traditional connector designs depended on a water-tight seal at the junction where the cable is most vulnerable to water ingress. No water, no corrosion. From this approach grew several variations of the wet-mate connector, each with a unique mechanical approach to creating that water-tight seal:

  • Rubber-molded wet-mate connectors use a locking sleeve and neoprene or polyurethane overmolding to create a water-tight seal between a female connector end and a glass-reinforced epoxy bulkhead connector.
  • Rigid shell wet-mate connectors are molded into a rigid body, offering greater stability, strength and lockability. The water-locking mechanism involves screwing the two connector halves together and sealing the junction with an O-ring.
  • Fluid-filled wet-mate connectors use a chamber filled with dielectric fluid, such as oil, to isolate the contacts from water. As the male and female ends are mated, the contact pins are wiped clean by the diaphragm in the face of the receptacle.
  • Inductive Couplings are pin-less connectors that adjoin magnetically without exposing any conductive parts to the outside environment.

While each of these wet-mate connector designs significantly improved the flexibility, life span, and safety profile of underwater electrical applications, there lacked a solution to eliminating the risk of corrosion altogether. That is until niobium wet-mate connectors emerged.

Niobium: The Ultimate Wet-Mate Connectors

Just as the name suggests, niobium connectors are made with niobium contact pins, which react peculiarly when energized and exposed to water. Rather than corrode, niobium pins develop a self-insulating film that naturally protects contacts from the harmful effects of water. Like fluid-filled connectors, mating a niobium connector wipes the film from contact pins and allows for a stable electrical connection. Upon unmating, the film instantly regenerates, making niobium connectors touch-safe in wet and dry environments and completely resistant to corrosion.

iCONN Systems incorporated their own patented niobium technology to develop a new wet-mate connector specially designed to let water in.

Learn more about the remarkable features and benefits of the NiobiCONN wet-mate connector.

Learn more about the NiobiCONN