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Typical PDMS Degradation in Soil

Evaporation and CO 2
UV degradation


PDMS Soil-catalyzed Monomers

Environmental Information


There's been a lot of misinformation about the environmental properties of silicone transformer

fluid. Although they've been branded as undesirable for not being biodegradable, in fact most

silicones (chemical name: polydimethylsiloxane or PDMS) break down quite efficiently in the

environment by natural processes, including clay-catalyzed hydrolysis of the polymers, followed

by oxidation and biodegradation of the resulting monomers. Acting together, these reactions

convert PDMS fluids into water, carbon dioxide, and silicates found naturally in the earth's crust.

Competing transformer fluid suppliers prefer to equate biodegradability with ecological

acceptability, while downplaying other degradation mechanisms. The truth is, all of these

processes can be very efficient means for environmental breakdown of natural and

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synthetic materials. A more credible criteria for a material's acceptability would be not whether

it biodegrades, but instead what effect the material has on the environment, whether it degrades

naturally, and what degradation products are created (regardless of the mechanism).

Environmental fate & effects

Silicone transformer fluids degrade when in contact with soil, and the rate will vary according to

the soil type and moisture content. In air dried soils, the half-life ranges from days to weeks. As

the PDMS fluid breaks down, the intermediate products are biodegradable, and they eventually

form CO2, water, and silicates (all of which exist naturally in the soil).

Extensive testing to date has not shown PDMS to be harmful to plants or animals.

No effects from PDMS (or its degradation products) have been observed on seed germination,

plant growth/survival or plant biomass. In addition, research has shown no adverse impact on

marine or terrestrial life forms (including insects and birds) under typical environmental

exposure conditions. Unlike PCBs and similar materials, silicone

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transformer fluids do not bioaccumulate, so there is no opportunity for

biomagnification and concentration in the food chain.


Generally, silicone fluids used in electric power transformers are not released to the environment

during or after use. In most cases, used PDMS fluids can be recycled

to extend fluid service life, reduce overall costs, and avoid disposal and liability concerns. They

can be reprocessed and re-used in the unit or recycled as feedstock for other products. There are

well-established technologies in place to remove moisture, dissolved air, and contamination from

used fluid. Utilities and OEMs are both using the techniques.

By combining vacuum distillation and fine particle filtration, commercially available systems

can produce a fluid that meets ASTM D 4652 for water content and dielectric properties. Some

designs have the capability to reduce water content as low as 10 ppm and dissolved air to less

than .25%, with filters that remove particulate matter down to .5 micron in size. There are even

units which can be connected while the transformer is

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on line, to reduce the service interruption. For used PDMS fluids requiring more rigorous

processing, Dow Corning offers its customers a commercial recycling program.

Environmental profile

With no need for pour point depressants or other modifiers, PDMS is a single-component,

additive-free transformer fluid with a very favorable environmental profile.

Silicone dielectric fluid is not classified as a hazardous waste at the end of its useful life.

If PDMS should enter the aquatic environment, it attaches to particulate matter and is removed

from the water by the natural cleansing process of sedimentation. PDMS compounds typically

do not partition back into the water column, and have no detectable Biological Oxygen Demand

(BOD). In contrast, biodegradable hydrocarbon fluids can have a high BOD, which reduces the

dissolved oxygen available to aquatic life.

Bioconcentration is not a significant concern with PDMS fluids, because their molecular size is

too large to pass through biological membranes in fish or other animals. Specific testing has

shown that PDMS does not bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms or terrestrial species, including


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Regulatory status

Due to its positive chemical, physical, and toxicological properties, silicone transformer fluid has

not experienced significant impact from health and environmental regulations when compared to

some of the alternative electrical insulating liquids. Accidental spills of PDMS fluid to surface

waters or soil can typically be handled under non-hazardous

regulatory guidelines, based on communications with specific federal and state agencies.

These groups have acknowledged that although biodegradability is normally a regulatory

consideration, the degradation and environmental fate data on silicone fluid has demonstrated a

low risk potential.

In fact, Dow Corning 561 Transformer Fluid recently earned the Blue Angel eco-label in

Germany, which recognizes products that are "...particularly acceptable in terms of

environmental protection." Although biodegradability is normally a requirement of the Blue

Angel designation, silicones were declared exempt on the basis of environmental degradability

data submitted to the reviewers, demonstrating that the natural degradation of PDMS is

comparable to biodegradation. This assessment concluded that

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silicone dielectric fluids exhibited acceptable low ecotoxicity, low bioaccumulation potential,

and low bacteria inhibition.

PDMS is not based on petroleum chemistry. It has no hazardous components as defined in

OSHA regulations (29 CFR 1910) or RCRA (40 CFR 261) and contains no

halogens (no chlorine or bromine). PDMS fluids are not affected by SARA Title III

(40 CFR 117) or CERCLA regulations.

Silicone fluids are currently excluded by definition and review from the lists of toxic,

bioaccumulative water pollutants in EPA's National Fish Study, National Contaminated

Sediments Strategy and Great Lakes Initiative. Unlike hydrocarbon oils, silicone fluids are not

covered by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

In response to tightening regulations, some fluid suppliers are developing vegetable oil

formulations, claiming environmental properties and biodegradation as key features.

Many questions still need to be better answered about the new vegetable-based

materials, including the optimum type of additives to be used and their

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specific/combined environmental properties. The long term stability and performance of these

new fluids have yet to be proven in actual service, and the level of fire hazard that will result if

ignited during transformer operation has not been demonstrated.