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Arc Phenomena in low-voltage current limiting circuit breakers

By Alice B. Thompson, G. Richardson, Paul Dellar, M. McGuinness and Chris Budd


Circuit breakers are an important safety feature in most electrical circuits, and they act to prevent excessive currents caused by short circuits, for example. Low-voltage current limiting circuit breakers are activated by a trip solenoid when a critical current is exceeded. The solenoid moves two contacts apart to break the circuit. However, as soon as the contacts are separated an electric arc forms between them, ionising the air in the gap, increasing the electrical conductivity of air to that of the hot plasma that forms, and current continues to flow. The currents involved may be as large as 80,000 amperes.\ud \ud Critical to the success of the circuit breaker is that it is designed to cause the arc to move away from the contacts, into a widening wedge-shaped region. This lengthens the arc, and then moves it onto a series of separator plates called an arc divider or splitter.\ud \ud The arc divider raises the voltage required to sustain the arcs across it, above the voltage that is provided across the breaker, so that the circuit is broken and the arcing dies away. This entire process occurs in milliseconds, and is usually associated with a sound like an explosion and a bright ash from the arc. Parts of the contacts and the arc divider may melt and/or vapourise.\ud \ud The question to be addressed by the Study Group was to mathematically model the arc motion and extinction, with the overall aim of an improved understanding that would help the design of a better circuit breaker.\ud \ud Further discussion indicated that two key mechanisms are believed to contribute to the movement of the arc away from the contacts, one being self-magnetism (where the magnetic field associated with the arc and surrounding circuitry acts to push it towards the arc\ud divider), and the other being air flow (where expansion of air combined with the design of the chamber enclosing the arc causes gas flow towards the arc divider).\ud \ud Further discussion also indicated that a key aspect of circuit breaker design was that it is desirable to have as fast a quenching of the arc as possible, that is, the faster the circuit breaker can act to stop current flow, the better. The relative importance of magnetic and air pressure effects on quenching speed is of central interest to circuit design

Topics: Energy and utilities, Materials
Year: 2010
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