Electric arc

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An electric arc between two nails Lichtbogen 3000 Volt.jpg
An electric arc between two nails
A demonstration of Jacob's ladder Jakobsleiter-ani.gif
A demonstration of Jacob's ladder

An electric arc, or arc discharge, is an electrical breakdown of a gas that produces a prolonged electrical discharge. The current through a normally nonconductive medium such as air produces a plasma; the plasma may produce visible light. An arc discharge is characterized by a lower voltage than a glow discharge and relies on thermionic emission of electrons from the electrodes supporting the arc. An archaic term is voltaic arc, as used in the phrase "voltaic arc lamp".


Techniques for arc suppression can be used to reduce the duration or likelihood of arc formation.

In the late 1800s, electric arc lighting was in wide use for public lighting. Some low-pressure electric arcs are used in many applications. For example, fluorescent tubes, mercury, sodium, and metal-halide lamps are used for lighting; xenon arc lamps have been used for movie projectors.


Natural Lightning is now considered an electric spark, not electric arc. Lightning NOAA.jpg
Natural Lightning is now considered an electric spark, not electric arc.

The phenomenon is believed to be first described by Humphry Davy in an 1801 paper published in William Nicholson's Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts . [1] However, Davy's description was not an electric arc, but spark, as this phenomenon is considered by the modern science: "This is evidently the description, not of an arc, but of a spark. For the essence of an arc is that it should be continuous, and that the poles should not be in contact after it has once started. The spark produced by Humphry Davy was plainly not continuous; and although the carbons remained red hot for some time after contact, there can have been no arc joining them, or so close an observer would have mentioned it". [2] In the same year Davy publicly demonstrated the effect, before the Royal Society, by transmitting an electric current through two touching carbon rods and then pulling them a short distance apart. The demonstration produced a "feeble" arc, not readily distinguished from a sustained spark, between charcoal points. The Society subscribed for a more powerful battery of 1,000 plates, and in 1808 he demonstrated the large-scale arc. [3] He is credited with naming the arc. [4] He called it an arc because it assumes the shape of an upward bow when the distance between the electrodes is not small. [5] This is due to the buoyant force on the hot gas.

The first continuous arc was discovered independently in 1802 and described in 1803 [6] as a "special fluid with electrical properties", by Vasily V. Petrov, a Russian scientist experimenting with a copper-zinc battery consisting of 4200 discs. [6] [7]

In the late nineteenth century, electric arc lighting was in wide use for public lighting. The tendency of electric arcs to flicker and hiss was a major problem. In 1895, Hertha Marks Ayrton wrote a series of articles for the Electrician, explaining that these phenomena were the result of oxygen coming into contact with the carbon rods used to create the arc. In 1899, she was the first woman ever to read her own paper before the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). Her paper was entitled "The Hissing of the Electric Arc". Shortly thereafter, Ayrton was elected the first female member of the IEE; the next woman to be admitted to the IEE was in 1958. [8] She petitioned to present a paper before the Royal Society, but she was not allowed because of her sex, and "The Mechanism of the Electric Arc" was read by John Perry in her stead in 1901.


Electric arcs between the power line and pantographs of an electric train after catenary icing
Electricity arcs between the power rail and electrical pickup "shoe" on a London Underground train Arcing pickup shoe.jpg
Electricity arcs between the power rail and electrical pickup "shoe" on a London Underground train

An electric arc is the form of electric discharge with the highest current density. The maximum current through an arc is limited only by the external circuit, not by the arc itself.

An arc between two electrodes can be initiated by ionization and glow discharge, when the current through the electrodes is increased. The breakdown voltage of the electrode gap is a combined function of the pressure, distance between electrodes and type of gas surrounding the electrodes. When an arc starts, its terminal voltage is much less than a glow discharge, and current is higher. An arc in gases near atmospheric pressure is characterized by visible light emission, high current density, and high temperature. An arc is distinguished from a glow discharge partly by the approximately equal effective temperatures of both electrons and positive ions; but in a glow discharge, ions have much less thermal energy than the electrons.

A drawn arc can be initiated by two electrodes initially in contact and drawn apart; this can initiate an arc without the high-voltage glow discharge. This is the way a welder starts to weld a joint, momentarily touching the welding electrode against the workpiece then withdrawing it till a stable arc is formed. Another example is separation of electrical contacts in switches, relays or circuit breakers; in high-energy circuits arc suppression may be required to prevent damage to contacts. [9]

Electrical resistance along the continuous electric arc creates heat, which ionizes more gas molecules (where the degree of ionization is determined by temperature), and as per this sequence: solid-liquid-gas-plasma; the gas is gradually turned into a thermal plasma. A thermal plasma is in thermal equilibrium; the temperature is relatively homogeneous throughout the atoms, molecules, ions, and electrons. The energy given to electrons is dispersed rapidly to the heavier particles by elastic collisions, due to their great mobility and large numbers.

Current in the arc is sustained by thermionic emission and field emission of electrons at the cathode. The current may be concentrated in a very small hot spot on the cathode; current densities on the order of one million amperes per square centimeter can be found. Unlike a glow discharge, an arc has little discernible structure, since the positive column is quite bright and extends nearly to the electrodes on both ends. The cathode fall and anode fall of a few volts occur within a fraction of a millimeter of each electrode. The positive column has a lower voltage gradient and may be absent in very short arcs. [9]

A low-frequency (less than 100 Hz) alternating current arc resembles a direct current arc; on each cycle, the arc is initiated by breakdown, and the electrodes interchange roles, as anode or cathode, when current reverses. As the frequency of the current increases, there is not enough time for all ionization to disperse on each half cycle, and the breakdown is no longer needed to sustain the arc; the voltage vs. current characteristic becomes more nearly ohmic. [9]

Electric arc between strands of wire. Electric arc.jpg
Electric arc between strands of wire.

The various shapes of electric arcs are emergent properties of non-linear patterns of current and electric field. The arc occurs in the gas-filled space between two conductive electrodes (often made of tungsten or carbon) and it results in a very high temperature, capable of melting or vaporizing most materials. An electric arc is a continuous discharge, while the similar electric spark discharge is momentary. An electric arc may occur either in direct current (DC) circuits or in alternating current (AC) circuits. In the latter case, the arc may re-strike on each half cycle of the current. An electric arc differs from a glow discharge in that the current density is quite high, and the voltage drop within the arc is low; at the cathode, the current density can be as high as one megaampere per square centimeter. [9]

An electric arc has a non-linear relationship between current and voltage. Once the arc is established (either by progression from a glow discharge [10] or by momentarily touching the electrodes then separating them), increased current results in a lower voltage between the arc terminals. This negative resistance effect requires that some positive form of impedance (as an electrical ballast) be placed in the circuit to maintain a stable arc. This property is the reason uncontrolled electrical arcs in apparatus become so destructive since once initiated, an arc will draw more and more current from a fixed-voltage supply until the apparatus is destroyed.


An electric arc can melt calcium oxide CaOmelt1.jpg
An electric arc can melt calcium oxide

Industrially, electric arcs are used for welding, plasma cutting, for electrical discharge machining, as an arc lamp in movie projectors, and followspots in stage lighting. Electric arc furnaces are used to produce steel and other substances. Calcium carbide is made in this way as it requires a large amount of energy to promote an endothermic reaction (at temperatures of 2500 °C).

Carbon arc lights were the first electric lights. They were used for street lights in the 19th century and for specialized applications such as searchlights until World War II. Today, low-pressure electric arcs are used in many applications. For example, fluorescent tubes, mercury, sodium, and metal halide lamps are used for lighting; xenon arc lamps are used for movie projectors.

Formation of an intense electric arc, similar to a small-scale arc flash, is the foundation of exploding-bridgewire detonators.

A major remaining application is in high voltage switchgear for high-voltage transmission networks. Modern devices use sulphur hexafluoride at high pressure in a nozzle flow between separated electrodes within a pressure vessel. The AC fault current is interrupted at current zero by the highly electronegative SF6 ions absorbing free electrons from the decaying plasma. A similar air-based technology has largely been replaced because many noisy units in series were required to prevent the current re-igniting under similar supergrid conditions.

Electric arcs have been studied for electric propulsion of spacecraft.

They are used in the laboratory for spectroscopy to create spectral emissions by intense heating of a sample of matter.

Guiding the arc

Scientists have discovered a method to control the path of an arc between two electrodes by firing laser beams at the gas between the electrodes. The gas becomes a plasma and guides the arc. By constructing the plasma path between the electrodes with different laser beams, the arc can be formed into curved and S-shaped paths. The arc could also hit an obstacle and reform on the other side of the obstacle. The laser-guided arc technology could be useful in applications to deliver a spark of electricity to a precise spot. [11] [12]

Undesired arcing

Undesired or unintended electric arcing can have detrimental effects on electric power transmission, distribution systems and electronic equipment. Devices which may cause arcing include switches, circuit breakers, relay contacts, fuses and poor cable terminations. When an inductive circuit is switched off, the current cannot instantaneously jump to zero: a transient arc will be formed across the separating contacts. Switching devices susceptible to arcing are normally designed to contain and extinguish an arc, and snubber circuits can supply a path for transient currents, preventing arcing. If a circuit has enough current and voltage to sustain an arc formed outside of a switching device, the arc can cause damage to equipment such as melting of conductors, destruction of insulation, and fire. An arc flash describes an explosive electrical event that presents a hazard to people and equipment.

Undesired arcing in electrical contacts of contactors, relays and switches can be reduced by devices such as contact arc suppressors [13] and RC Snubbers or through techniques including:

Arcing can also occur when a low resistance channel (foreign object, conductive dust, moisture...) forms between places with different voltage. The conductive channel then can facilitate formation of an electric arc. The ionized air has high electrical conductivity approaching that of metals, and it can conduct extremely high currents, causing a short circuit and tripping protective devices (fuses and circuit breakers). A similar situation may occur when a lightbulb burns out and the fragments of the filament pull an electric arc between the leads inside the bulb, leading to overcurrent that trips the breakers.

An electric arc over the surface of plastics causes their degradation. A conductive carbon-rich track tends to form in the arc path, called "carbon tracking", negatively influencing their insulation properties. The arc susceptibility, or "track resistance", is tested according to ASTM D495, by point electrodes and continuous and intermittent arcs; it is measured in seconds required to form a track that is conductive under high-voltage low-current conditions. [14] Some materials are less susceptible to degradation than others. For example, polytetrafluoroethylene has arc resistance of about 200 seconds (3.3 minutes). From thermosetting plastics, alkyds and melamine resins are better than phenolic resins. Polyethylenes have arc resistance of about 150 seconds; polystyrenes and polyvinyl chlorides have relatively low resistance of about 70 seconds. Plastics can be formulated to emit gases with arc-extinguishing properties; these are known as arc-extinguishing plastics. [15]

Arcing over some types of printed circuit boards, possibly due to cracks of the traces or the failure of a solder, renders the affected insulating layer conductive as the dielectric is combusted due to the high temperatures involved. This conductivity prolongs the arcing due to cascading failure of the surface.

Arc suppression

Arc suppression is a method of attempting to reduce or eliminate an electrical arc. There are several possible areas of use of arc suppression methods, among them metal film deposition and sputtering, arc flash protection, electrostatic processes where electrical arcs are not desired (such as powder painting, air purification, PVDF film poling) and contact current arc suppression. In industrial, military and consumer electronic design, the latter method generally applies to devices such as electromechanical power switches, relays and contactors. In this context, arc suppression uses contact protection.

Part of the energy of an electrical arc forms new chemical compounds from the air surrounding the arc: these include oxides of nitrogen and ozone, the second of which can be detected by its distinctive sharp smell. These chemicals can be produced by high-power contacts in relays and motor commutators, and they are corrosive to nearby metal surfaces. Arcing also erodes the surfaces of the contacts, wearing them down and creating high contact resistance when closed. [16]

See also

Related Research Articles

Fluorescent lamp Light source

A fluorescent lamp, or fluorescent tube, is a low-pressure mercury-vapor gas-discharge lamp that uses fluorescence to produce visible light. An electric current in the gas excites mercury vapor, which produces short-wave ultraviolet light that then causes a phosphor coating on the inside of the lamp to glow. A fluorescent lamp converts electrical energy into useful light much more efficiently than incandescent lamps. The typical luminous efficacy of fluorescent lighting systems is 50–100 lumens per watt, several times the efficacy of incandescent bulbs with comparable light output.

Cold cathode Type of electrode and part of cold cathode fluorescent lamp.

A cold cathode is a cathode that is not electrically heated by a filament. A cathode may be considered "cold" if it emits more electrons than can be supplied by thermionic emission alone. It is used in gas-discharge lamps, such as neon lamps, discharge tubes, and some types of vacuum tube. The other type of cathode is a hot cathode, which is heated by electric current passing through a filament. A cold cathode does not necessarily operate at a low temperature: it is often heated to its operating temperature by other methods, such as the current passing from the cathode into the gas.

Spark gap arrangement of two conducting electrodes separated by a gap

A spark gap consists of an arrangement of two conducting electrodes separated by a gap usually filled with a gas such as air, designed to allow an electric spark to pass between the conductors. When the potential difference between the conductors exceeds the breakdown voltage of the gas within the gap, a spark forms, ionizing the gas and drastically reducing its electrical resistance. An electric current then flows until the path of ionized gas is broken or the current reduces below a minimum value called the "holding current". This usually happens when the voltage drops, but in some cases occurs when the heated gas rises, stretching out and then breaking the filament of ionized gas. Usually, the action of ionizing the gas is violent and disruptive, often leading to sound, light and heat.

Neon lamp Light source based on gas discharge

A neon lamp is a miniature gas discharge lamp. The lamp typically consists of a small glass capsule that contains a mixture of neon and other gases at a low pressure and two electrodes. When sufficient voltage is applied and sufficient current is supplied between the electrodes, the lamp produces an orange glow discharge. The glowing portion in the lamp is a thin region near the cathode; the larger and much longer neon signs are also glow discharges, but they use the positive column which is not present in the ordinary neon lamp. Neon glow lamps were widely used as indicator lamps in the displays of electronic instruments and appliances.

Corona discharge electrical discharge brought on by the ionization of a fluid such as air surrounding a conductor that is electrically charged

A corona discharge is an electrical discharge brought on by the ionization of a fluid such as air surrounding a conductor that is electrically charged. Spontaneous corona discharges occur naturally in high-voltage systems unless care is taken to limit the electric field strength. A corona will occur when the strength of the electric field around a conductor is high enough to form a conductive region, but not high enough to cause electrical breakdown or arcing to nearby objects. It is often seen as a bluish glow in the air adjacent to pointed metal conductors carrying high voltages, and emits light by the same property as a gas discharge lamp.

Flashtube Incoherent light source

A flashtube, also called a flashlamp, is an electric arc lamp designed to produce extremely intense, incoherent, full-spectrum white light for very short durations. Flashtubes are made of a length of glass tubing with electrodes at either end and are filled with a gas that, when triggered, ionizes and conducts a high voltage pulse to produce the light. Flashtubes are used mostly for photographic purposes but are also employed in scientific, medical, industrial, and entertainment applications.

Gas-filled tube arrangement of electrodes in a gas within an insulating, temperature-resistant envelope

A gas-filled tube, also known as a discharge tube, is an arrangement of electrodes in a gas within an insulating, temperature-resistant envelope. Gas-filled tubes exploit phenomena related to electric discharge in gases, and operate by ionizing the gas with an applied voltage sufficient to cause electrical conduction by the underlying phenomena of the Townsend discharge. A gas-discharge lamp is an electric light using a gas-filled tube; these include fluorescent lamps, metal-halide lamps, sodium-vapor lamps, and neon lights. Specialized gas-filled tubes such as krytrons, thyratrons, and ignitrons are used as switching devices in electric devices.

Electrical breakdown when current flows through an electrical insulator when the voltage applied across it exceeds the breakdown voltage

Electrical breakdown or dielectric breakdown is when current flows through an electrical insulator when the voltage applied across it exceeds the breakdown voltage. This results in the insulator becoming electrically conductive. Electrical breakdown may be a momentary event, or may lead to a continuous arc if protective devices fail to interrupt the current in a power circuit.

Glow discharge plasma formed by the passage of electric current through a gas

A glow discharge is a plasma formed by the passage of electric current through a gas. It is often created by applying a voltage between two electrodes in a glass tube containing a low-pressure gas. When the voltage exceeds a value called the striking voltage, the gas ionization becomes self-sustaining, and the tube glows with a colored light. The color depends on the gas used.

Plasma globe

A plasma globe or plasma lamp is a clear glass container filled with a mixture of various noble gases with a high-voltage electrode in the center of the container.

Geissler tube gas-discharge lamp

A Geissler tube is an early gas discharge tube used to demonstrate the principles of electrical glow discharge, similar to modern neon lighting. The tube was invented by the German physicist and glassblower Heinrich Geissler in 1857. It consists of a sealed, partially evacuated glass cylinder of various shapes with a metal electrode at each end, containing rarefied gasses such as neon, argon, or air; mercury vapor or other conductive fluids; or ionizable minerals or metals, such as sodium. When a high voltage is applied between the electrodes, an electrical current flows through the tube. The current dissociates electrons from the gas molecules, creating ions, and when the electrons recombine with the ions, the gas emits light by fluorescence. The color of light emitted is characteristic of the material within the tube, and many different colors and lighting effects can be achieved. The first gas-discharge lamps, Geissler tubes were novelty items, made in many artistic shapes and colors to demonstrate the new science of electricity. In the early 20th century, the technology was commercialized and evolved into neon lighting.

High voltage electrical energy at voltages high enough to inflict harm on living organisms

The term high voltage usually means electrical energy at voltages high enough to inflict harm on living organisms. Equipment and conductors that carry high voltage warrant particular safety requirements and procedures. In certain industries, high voltage means voltage above a particular threshold (see below). High voltage is used in electrical power distribution, in cathode ray tubes, to generate X-rays and particle beams, to demonstrate arcing, for ignition, in photomultiplier tubes, and in high power amplifier vacuum tubes and other industrial, military and scientific applications.

A vacuum arc can arise when the surfaces of metal electrodes in contact with a good vacuum begin to emit electrons either through heating or in an electric field that is sufficient to cause field electron emission. Once initiated, a vacuum arc can persist, since the freed particles gain kinetic energy from the electric field, heating the metal surfaces through high-speed particle collisions. This process can create an incandescent cathode spot, which frees more particles, thereby sustaining the arc. At sufficiently high currents an incandescent anode spot may also be formed.

Gas-discharge lamp artificial light sources powered by ionized gas electric discharge

Gas-discharge lamps are a family of artificial light sources that generate light by sending an electric discharge through an ionized gas, a plasma. Typically, such lamps use a noble gas or a mixture of these gases. Some include additional substances, like mercury, sodium, and metal halides, which are vaporized during startup to become part of the gas mixture. In operation, some of the electrons are forced to leave the atoms of the gas near the anode by the electric field applied between the two electrodes, leaving these atoms positively ionized. The free electrons thus released flow onto the anode, while the cations thus formed are accelerated by the electric field and flow towards the cathode. Typically, after traveling a very short distance, the ions collide with neutral gas atoms, which transfer their electrons to the ions. The atoms, having lost an electron during the collisions, ionize and speed toward the cathode while the ions, having gained an electron during the collisions, return to a lower energy state while releasing energy in the form of photons. Light of a characteristic frequency is thus emitted. In this way, electrons are relayed through the gas from the cathode to the anode. The color of the light produced depends on the emission spectra of the atoms making up the gas, as well as the pressure of the gas, current density, and other variables. Gas discharge lamps can produce a wide range of colors. Some lamps produce ultraviolet radiation which is converted to visible light by a fluorescent coating on the inside of the lamp's glass surface. The fluorescent lamp is perhaps the best known gas-discharge lamp.

Electric spark kind of electrical discharge

An electric spark is an abrupt electrical discharge that occurs when a sufficiently high electric field creates an ionized, electrically conductive channel through a normally-insulating medium, often air or other gases or gas mixtures. Michael Faraday described this phenomenon as "the beautiful flash of light attending the discharge of common electricity".

A leader is a hot, highly conductive channel of plasma that plays a critical part during dielectric breakdown within a long electric spark.

Townsend discharge gas ionisation process where free electrons are accelerated by an electric field, collide with gas molecules, and consequently free additional electrons

The Townsend discharge or Townsend avalanche is a gas ionisation process where free electrons are accelerated by an electric field, collide with gas molecules, and consequently free additional electrons. Those electrons are in turn accelerated and free additional electrons. The result is an avalanche multiplication that permits electrical conduction through the gas. The discharge requires a source of free electrons and a significant electric field; without both, the phenomenon does not occur.

Plasma activation is a method of surface modification employing plasma processing, which improves surface adhesion properties of many materials including metals, glass, ceramics, a broad range of polymers and textiles and even natural materials such as wood and seeds. Plasma functionalization also refers to the introduction of functional groups on the surface of exposed materials. It is widely used in industrial processes to prepare surfaces for bonding, gluing, coating and painting. Plasma processing achieves this effect through a combination of reduction of metal oxides, ultra-fine surface cleaning from organic contaminants, modification of the surface topography and deposition of functional chemical groups. Importantly, the plasma activation can be performed at the atmospheric pressure using air or typical industrial gases including hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. Thus, the surface functionalization is achieved without expensive vacuum equipment or wet chemistry, which positively affects its costs, safety and environmental impact. Fast processing speeds further facilitate numerous industrial applications.

Plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition Ultra thin coating process

Plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD) is a chemical vapor deposition process used to deposit thin films from a gas state (vapor) to a solid state on a substrate. Chemical reactions are involved in the process, which occur after creation of a plasma of the reacting gases. The plasma is generally created by radio frequency (RF) frequency or direct current (DC) discharge between two electrodes, the space between which is filled with the reacting gases.

Electric discharge in gases occurs when electric current flows through a gaseous medium due to ionization of the gas. Depending on several factors, the discharge may radiate visible light. The properties of electric discharges in gases are studied in connection with design of lighting sources and in the design of high voltage electrical equipment.


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