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Chapter: Protection and Switchgear : Theory of Circuit Interruption

Formation of arc during circuit breaking

The phenomena of Arc, Arc in circuit breaker, Role of arc in circuit breaker, Arc Interruption or Arc Quenching or Arc Extinction Theory,..

Formation of arc during circuit breaking


The phenomena of Arc


During opening of current carrying contacts in a circuit breaker the medium in between opening contacts become highly ionized through which the interrupting current gets low resistive path and continues to flow through this path even after the contacts are physically separated. During the flowing of current from one contact to other the path becomes so heated that it glows in the form of an arc.


Arc in circuit breaker


Whenever, the contacts of circuit breaker open while carrying load there is an arc in the medium between the separating contacts of the circuit breaker. As long as this arc is sustained in between the contacts, the current through the circuit breaker will not be interrupted totally. For total interruption of current, the arc needs to be quenched as quickly as possible. The main designing criteria of a circuit breaker is to provide appropriate technology of arc quenching in circuit breaker to fulfill quick and safe current interruption. So before going through different arc quenching techniques employed in circuit breaker, it is first necessary to understand the phenomena of arc in circuit breaker.


Role of arc in circuit breaker


When two current carrying contacts open, an arc bridges the contact gap through which the current gets a low resistive path to flow so there will not be any sudden interruption of current. As there is no sudden and abrupt change in current during opening of the contacts, there will not be any abnormal switching over voltage in the system. Let i is the current flowing through the contacts just before they open and L is the system inductance, switching over voltage during opening of contacts, may be expressed as V = L.(di/dt) where di/dt rate of change of current with respect to time during opening of the contacts. In the case of alternating current arc is momentarily extinguished at every current zero. After crossing every current zero the medium between separated contacts gets ionized again during next cycle of current and the arc in circuit breaker is reestablished. To make the interruption complete and successful, this re-ionization in between separated contacts to be prevented after a current zero.


If arc in circuit breaker is absence during opening of current carrying contacts, there would be sudden and abrupt interruption of current which will cause a huge switching overvoltage sufficient to severely stress the insulation of the system. On the other hand, the arc provides a gradual but quick, transition from the current carrying to the current breaking states of the contacts.

Arc Interruption or Arc Quenching or Arc Extinction Theory


At high temperature the charged particles in a gas move rapidly and randomly, but in absence of electric field, no net motion occurs. Whenever an electric field is applied in the gas, the charged particles gain drift velocity superimposed on their random thermal motion. The drift velocity is proportional to the voltage gradient of the field and particle mobility. The particle mobility depends upon the mass of the particle, heavier particles, lower the mobility. The mobility also depends upon mean free paths available in the gas for random movement of the particles. Since every time a particle collides, it loses its directed velocity and has to be re-accelerated in the direction of electric field again. Hence net mobility of the particles is reduced. If the medium has high pressure, it becomes denser and hence, the gas molecules come closer to each other, therefore collision occurs more frequently which lowers the mobility particles. The total current by charged particles is directly proportional to their mobility. Therefore the mobility of charged particles depends upon the temperature, pressure of the gas and as well as nature of the gas. Again the mobility of gas particles determines the degree ionization of gas.


So from above explanation we can say that ionization process of gas depends upon nature of gas (heavier or lighter gas particles), pressure of gas and temperature of gas. As we said earlier the intensity of arc column depend up on the presence of ionized media between separated electrical contacts, hence, special attention should be given in reducing ionization or increasing deionization of media between contacts. That is why the main designing feature of circuit breaker is to provide different pressure control methods, cooling methods for different arc media in between circuit breaker contacts.




Heat loss from an arc in circuit breaker takes place through conduction, convection as well as radiation. In circuit breaker with plain break arc in oil, arc in chutes or narrow slots nearly all the heat loss due to conduction. In air blast circuit breaker or in breaker where a gas flow is present between the electrical contacts, the heat loss of arc plasma occurs due to convection process. At normal pressure the radiation is not a significant factor but at higher pressure the radiation may become a very important factor of heat dissipation from arc plasma. During opening of electrical contacts, the arc in circuit breaker is produced and it is extinguished at every zero crossing, getting established again during the next cycle. The final arc extinction or arc quenching in circuit breaker can be achieved by rapid increase of the dielectric strength in the medium between the contacts so that the arc gets quenched after the first zero crossing. This rapid increase of dielectric strength in between circuit breaker contacts is achieved either by deionization of gas in the arc media or by replacing ionized gas by cool and fresh gas. There are various deionization processes applied for arc extinction in circuit breaker, let us discussed in brief.




If pressure of the arc path increases, the density of the ionized gas is increased which means, the particles in the gas come closer to each other and as a result the mean free path of the particles is reduced. This increases the collision rate and as we discussed earlier at every collision the charged particles loss their directed velocity along electric field and again they are re-accelerated towards field. It can be said that over all mobility of the charged particles is reduced so the voltage required to maintain the arc is increased. Another effect of the increased density of particles is a higher rate of deionization of gas due to the recombination of oppositely charged particles.


The rate of ionization of gas depends upon the intensity of impact during collision of gas particles. The intensity of impact during collision of particles again depends upon velocity of random motions of the particles. This random motion of a particle and its velocity increases with increase of temperature of the gas. Hence it can be concluded like that if temperature of a gas is increased; its ionization process is increased and opposite statement is also true that is if the temperature is decreased the rate of ionization of gas is decreased means deionization of gas is increased. Therefore more voltage required to maintain arc plasma with a decreased temperature. Finally it can be said that the cooling effectively increases the resistance of the arc.


The insulating material ( may be fluid or air) used in circuit breaker should serve two important functions as follows:


1. It should provide sufficient insulation between the contacts when circuit breaker opens.


2. It should extinguish the arc occurring between the contacts when circuit breaker opens.


Methods of arc interruption


There are two methods by which interruption is done.


1. High resistance method.


2. Low resistance method or zero interruption method.


In high interruption method we can increase the electrical resistance many times to such a high value that it forces the current to reach to zero and thus restricting the possibility of arc to be struck again. Proper steps must be taken in order to ensure that the rate at which the resistance is increased or decreased is not abnormal because it may lead to generation of harmful induced voltages in the system. The arc resistance can be increased by various methods like lengthening or cooling of the arc etc.


Limitations of high resistance method: Arc discharge has a resistive nature due to this most of the energy is received by circuit breaker itself hence proper care should be taken during the manufacturing of circuit breaker like mechanical strength etc. Therefore this method is applied in dc power circuit breaker, low and medium ac power circuit breaker.


Low resistance method is applicable only for ac circuit and it is possible there because of presence of natural zero of current. The arc gets extinguished at the natural zero of the ac wave and is prevented from restricting again by rapid building of dielectric strength of the contact space.


There are two theories which explains the phenomenon of arc extinction:


1.                         Energy balance theory,


2.                         Voltage race theory.


Before going in details about these theories, we should know the following terms.


Restriking voltage: It may be defined as the voltage that appears across the breaking contact at the instant of arc extinction.


Recovery voltage :


It may be defined as the voltage that appears across the breaker contact after the complete removal of transient oscillations and final extinction of arc has resulted in all the poles.


Active recovery voltage :


It may be defined as the instantaneous recovery voltage at the instant of arc extinction.


Arc voltage :


It may be defined as the voltage that appears across the contact during the arcing period, when the current flow is maintained in the form of an arc. It assumes low value except for the point at which the voltage rise rapidly to a peak value and current reaches to zero.

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