Society uses electrical connectors every single day to power computers, charge devices, transfer data and more. But rarely do people stop to think about how connectors work or what makes a traditional electrical connector different from those designed for extreme environments, like undersea cables submerged tens of thousands of feet below the surface. While the overall design of such specialized connectors is mission-critical, electrical engineers understand that a connector’s contacts will ultimately make or break a circuit.
What is an electrical contact?
Contacts are components made of electrically conductive material found in electrical switches, connectors and circuit breakers. When two contacts touch, they can pass an electrical current from one cable to another. Conversely, if two contacts are separated by what is known as an “insulating gap,” the electrical current will be discontinued.
Why do contact materials matter?
Contacts can be made of several different types of metallic materials — each with varying properties. Gold, for example, is resistant to surface corrosion from exposure to oxygen, sulfur compounds, and moisture and retains a clean finish, which ensures a reliable low-resistance electrical connection. However, gold is also more expensive and considerably softer than other metals, lending itself to erosion and a more frequent need for replacement. Silver alloys are much harder than metal and tend to offer a longer lifecycle at a lower cost. However, silver is also more vulnerable to corrosion. When it comes to water exposure, no other material compares to that of pure niobium contacts. Before we discuss why, let’s revisit how traditional contacts perform in water.
How Traditional Contacts Perform in Water
When it comes to the failure of an underwater electrical connector, most people are quick to blame water, but the presence of H2O isn’t actually the problem; it’s the ions in water and how they interact with atoms on metallic surfaces.
Water is loaded with minerals, including calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and other contaminants that form tiny charged particles called ions. These ions turn water into a conductive medium. If exposed to a live electrical current, ions in water allow electricity to go where it’s not supposed to go, which can be extremely dangerous and damaging.
Over time, water exposure oxidizes the surface atoms on metal, resulting in a buildup of corrosion. Corrosion looks like a discolored film or residue on the surface and sockets surrounding electrical contacts and acts as an insulating layer (aka, an insulating gap) that impedes the flow of electricity from one contact to another. For this reason, traditional electrical connectors attempt to exclude water from touching contact surfaces.
How Niobium Contacts Perform in Water
Niobium contacts, such as those found in the NiobiCONN underwater connector series, represent a fundamentally new way to form electrical connections underwater. Unlike traditional, metallic contacts, NiobiCONN connectors use pure niobium contacts to form a safe and reliable electrical connection while completely submerged in water. Here’s how it works:
- When pure niobium is exposed to water, the contacts create an immediate passive film, preventing electricity from traveling through the water or ions in the water from corroding contact surfaces.
- When male contacts are mated with a female connector, the sockets effectively scrape away the passive film, allowing a clean electrical connection to occur unimpeded by corrosion.
- When the connector is disconnected again, the film immediately reforms to protect the connector contacts and prevent damage or danger.
Unlike traditional wet-mate connectors, which use a variety of design mechanisms to prevent water ingress, including grease, oil, vented pins and sockets, and glass-filled epoxy, the NiobiCONN connector is designed to allow water inside of the connector without the use of any seals, O-rings, or gaskets. NiobiCONN connectors are also compatible with off-the-shelf solutions and are completely touch-safe in and out of water.
For more information, check out this video to see our patented NiobiCON connector in action.