Electrical erosion is caused by unintended currents flowing through Hertzian contact points between the rolling elements and raceways of a bearing. The unintended currents are often generated due to asymmetries in the magnetic field of an electric generator causing a potential difference. Rotating parts other than the rotor may also unintentionally intersect with the magnetic fields. As the current flows between bearing components, sparks may create many small craters by removing material. The material is removed due to localised melting before being vaporised or washed away. Over time, the initial micro-craters progress into fluting due to the mechanical stress as the Hertzian contact passes over the micro-craters. The subsequent mechanical resonance vibration occurs which causes the fluting marks. The properties of the material around the localised melting zone are often affected due to tempering/rehardening which can cause points of high stress concentration leading to micropitting or crack initiation.
All forms of electrical erosion are considered severe, however there can still be some progression. Over time, the initial micro-craters progress into fluting due to the mechanical stress as the Hertzian contact area passes over the micro-craters. The subsequent mechanical resonance vibration occurs which causes the grey fluting marks. This can progress into severe adhesive wear, micropitting and macropitting due to the stress concentration points created by the craters.
|Visual inspection||✓||Difficult to observe visually due to access limitations on generator bearings. If the micro-craters are large enough and there is access to other bearings then it may be possible to observe visually.|
|Borescope inspection||✓✓||Difficult to observe with a borescope due to access limitations on generator bearings. However, if accessible a borescope will be able to detect electrical erosion.|
|Vibration analysis||✓✓||Noise and vibration of high intensity can be an early indication of electrical erosion so it can usually be detected using vibration data.|
|SCADA data||✓||SCADA data does not usually aid detection of electrical erosion.|
|Oil debris sensor||✓||Electrical erosion does not shed much debris so cannot usually be detected using oil debris sensors.|
|Oil sample analysis||✓||Electrical erosion does not shed much debris so cannot usually be detected using oil sample analysis.|
Electrical erosion can be a very severe failure mode if found in a bearing due to the removal of material from the critical contacting surfaces and the high intensity vibration usually experienced. Also, the current discharge can damage the lubricant properties causing further damage to components.
To prevent electrical erosion of bearings and other issues, generator manufacturers incorporate a slip ring and brush system to provide a low resistance path to ground for any charge that may build on the rotor shaft. This grounding system may degrade over time if the ground ring becomes oxidized, the brushes become worn or the brush holder spring does not have enough pressure to hold the brush firmly against the ring. Maintenance of the system is critical and often prescribed bi-annually.
Several solutions exist for generators where electrical erosion is a persistent problem. Solutions are listed in order of increasing expense and effectiveness:
- Improving grounding system maintenance practices and frequency
- Resurface ground ring
- Upgrade grounding brush and/or brush holder
- Replace bearings with aluminium oxide outer or inner ring coating to increase electrical resistance
- Replace deep grove ball bearings with hybrid bearings that use non-conductive ceramic balls