College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Power Transformer Failures Researched in Doctoral Study

Understanding mechanisms involved in dysfunctional power transformers using computational and theoretical techniques was the focus of PhD (Physics) graduate, Dr Sharlene-Asia Naicker’s research.

The failure of transformers, sometimes the cause of power outages, is mainly attributed to the corrosion of copper/silver windings by corrosive sulphur.

Naicker’s research investigated the interaction mechanism between corrosive sulphur and the windings within the transformer from a quantum mechanical perspective. The lowest energy configuration of the interactions was identified to promote further research.

‘With my background in Applied Physics and my interest in Chemistry, I really enjoyed using computational many-body modelling techniques to visualise and obtain the lowest ground state energy of various systems,’ she said.

Naicker’s PhD research has formed the basis of further studies into developing remedial processes that could ultimately mitigate the failure of transformers.

The research determined the reactivity between the corrosive sulphur on both copper and silver surfaces. Through simulations, the most severe combination of corrosive sulphur and metal surface were identified and used as the basis for further research.

Her research established that by reducing the number of failed transformers and providing good mitigation techniques and regular maintenance, the incidence of failed transformers could be reduced and the number of power outages decreased.

Naicker originally made up her mind to come to UKZN after attending a University Open Day. After matriculating with distinction at Scottburgh High School, she registered for a BSc in Applied Physics. She went on to do her Honours degree in Applied Physics – earning four certificates of merit along the way – followed by her masters.


Naicker, who describes her PhD experience as ‘quite difficult but ultimately rewarding’,had a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal while another of her papers has been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal and a third is under review.

She dedicated her PhD research to her late parents, both of whom she lost to illness during the course of her postgraduate studies. ‘My parents always encouraged me to work hard and follow my dreams. I am also grateful to my sister and my cousin who supported me and gave me the courage to continue through the difficult times,’ she said.

Her cousin, Collin Pillay, describes Naicker’s experience as ‘perseverance through adversity. When my cousin chose to do a degree in Applied Physics, I thought she was crazy, because physics is absolutely difficult. A few years later she has a doctorate. It proves that she is a very intelligent and hardworking person and that after the loss of both her parents during her studies and also taking care of her sister, she was still able to achieve her goals. We are very proud of her,’ said Pillay.

Naicker thanked her supervisor, Dr Mervlyn Moodley for his patience and guidance. Moodley said: ‘Asia’s path to achieving her PhD was truly remarkable. Her resilience in overcoming tragedies and obstacles must be commended. She was never afraid to learn advanced theoretical concepts and then painstakingly master the use of computational techniques, which ultimately led to her producing novel results in her research. It was a pleasure teaching her new physics and each time seeing her expression of interest and fascination. I wish her all the best in her future endeavours.’

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Supplied