Transformer oil, or insulating oil, is usually a highly-refined mineral oil that is stable at high temperatures and has excellent electrical insulating properties. It is used in oil filled transformers, some types of high voltage capacitors, fluorescent lamp ballasts, and some types of high voltage switches and circuit breakers. Its functions are to insulate, suppress corona and arcing, and to serve as a coolant.
Well into the 1970s, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB)s were often used as a dielectric fluid since they are not flammable. They are toxic, and under incomplete combustion, can form highly toxic products such as furan. Starting in the early 1970s, concerns about the toxicity of PCBs have led to their banning in many countries.
Today, non-toxic, stable silicon-based or fluoridated hydrocarbons are used, where the added expense of a fire-resistant liquid offsets additional building cost for a transformer vault. Combustion-resistant vegetable oil-based dielectric coolants and synthetic pentaerythritol tetra fatty acid (C7, C8) esters are also becoming increasingly common as alternatives to naphthenic mineral oil. Esters are non-toxic to aquatic life, readily biodegradable, and have a lower volatility and higher flash points than mineral oil.