Electric arc
An electric arc is an electrical breakdown
Electrical breakdown
The term electrical breakdown or electric breakdown has several similar but distinctly different meanings. For example, the term can apply to the failure of an electric circuit....

 of a gas which produces an ongoing plasma
Plasma (physics)
In physics and chemistry, plasma is a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. Heating a gas may ionize its molecules or atoms , thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions...

Electrostatic discharge
Electrostatic discharge is a serious issue in solid state electronics, such as integrated circuits. Integrated circuits are made from semiconductor materials such as silicon and insulating materials such as silicon dioxide...

, resulting from a current flowing through normally nonconductive media such as air. A synonym is arc discharge. An arc discharge is characterized by a lower voltage than a glow discharge, and relies on thermionic emission
Thermionic emission
Thermionic emission is the heat-induced flow of charge carriers from a surface or over a potential-energy barrier. This occurs because the thermal energy given to the carrier overcomes the binding potential, also known as work function of the metal. The charge carriers can be electrons or ions, and...

 of electrons from the electrodes supporting the arc. An archaic term is voltaic arc as used in the phrase "voltaic arc lamp".


The phenomenon was first described in 1802, as a "special fluid with electrical properties", by Vasily V. Petrov, a Russian scientist experimenting with a copper-zinc battery
Voltaic pile
A voltaic pile is a set of individual Galvanic cells placed in series. The voltaic pile, invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800, was the first electric battery...

 consisting of 4200 discs. Sir Humphry Davy
Humphry Davy
Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet FRS MRIA was a British chemist and inventor. He is probably best remembered today for his discoveries of several alkali and alkaline earth metals, as well as contributions to the discoveries of the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine...

 first demonstrated the arc early in the nineteenth century by transmitting an electric current through two touching carbon
Carbon is the chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6. As a member of group 14 on the periodic table, it is nonmetallic and tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds...

 rods and then pulling them a short distance apart. In 1801, at a lecture before the Royal Society
Royal Society
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...

, he produced a "feeble" arc, not readily distinguished from a sustained spark
-Physical sparks:* Spark , a small glowing particle or ember* An electric spark, usually with a flash and a sharp noise-Computer science:* SPARK...

, between charcoal
Charcoal is the dark grey residue consisting of carbon, and any remaining ash, obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from animal and vegetation substances. Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood or other substances in the absence of oxygen...

 points. The Society subscribed for a more powerful battery of 1000 plates and in 1808 he demonstrated the large-scale arc. He is credited with naming the arc.


The various shapes of electric arc are emergent properties
In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems....

 of nonlinear patterns of current and electric field
Electric field
In physics, an electric field surrounds electrically charged particles and time-varying magnetic fields. The electric field depicts the force exerted on other electrically charged objects by the electrically charged particle the field is surrounding...

. The arc occurs in the gas-filled space between two conductive electrodes (often made of tungsten
Tungsten , also known as wolfram , is a chemical element with the chemical symbol W and atomic number 74.A hard, rare metal under standard conditions when uncombined, tungsten is found naturally on Earth only in chemical compounds. It was identified as a new element in 1781, and first isolated as...

 or carbon) and it results in a very high temperature
Temperature is a physical property of matter that quantitatively expresses the common notions of hot and cold. Objects of low temperature are cold, while various degrees of higher temperatures are referred to as warm or hot...

, capable of melting
Melting, or fusion, is a physical process that results in the phase change of a substance from a solid to a liquid. The internal energy of a substance is increased, typically by the application of heat or pressure, resulting in a rise of its temperature to the melting point, at which the rigid...

 or vaporizing
Evaporation is a type of vaporization of a liquid that occurs only on the surface of a liquid. The other type of vaporization is boiling, which, instead, occurs on the entire mass of the liquid....

 most materials. An electric arc is a continuous discharge, while a similar electric spark
Electrostatic discharge
Electrostatic discharge is a serious issue in solid state electronics, such as integrated circuits. Integrated circuits are made from semiconductor materials such as silicon and insulating materials such as silicon dioxide...

 discharge is momentary. An electric arc may occur either in Direct current
Direct current
Direct current is the unidirectional flow of electric charge. Direct current is produced by such sources as batteries, thermocouples, solar cells, and commutator-type electric machines of the dynamo type. Direct current may flow in a conductor such as a wire, but can also flow through...

 circuits or in alternating current
Alternating current
In alternating current the movement of electric charge periodically reverses direction. In direct current , the flow of electric charge is only in one direction....

 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
A cathode is an electrode through which electric current flows out of a polarized electrical device. Mnemonic: CCD .Cathode polarity is not always negative...

 the current density may be as high as one megaampere per square centimeter.

An electric arc has a non-linear relationship between current and voltage. Once the arc is established (either by progression from a glow discharge or by momentarily touching the electrodes then separating them), increased current results in a lower voltage between the arc terminals. This negative resistance
Negative resistance
Negative resistance is a property of some electric circuits where an increase in the current entering a port results in a decreased voltage across the same port. This is in contrast to a simple ohmic resistor, which exhibits an increase in voltage under the same conditions. Negative resistors are...

 effect requires that some positive form of impedance
Electrical impedance
Electrical impedance, or simply impedance, is the measure of the opposition that an electrical circuit presents to the passage of a current when a voltage is applied. In quantitative terms, it is the complex ratio of the voltage to the current in an alternating current circuit...

—an electrical ballast
Electrical ballast
An electrical ballast is a device intended to limit the amount of current in an electric circuit. A familiar and widely used example is the inductive ballast used in fluorescent lamps, to limit the current through the tube, which would otherwise rise to destructive levels due to the tube's...

—to 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.


Industrially, electric arcs are used for welding
Welding is a fabrication or sculptural process that joins materials, usually metals or thermoplastics, by causing coalescence. This is often done by melting the workpieces and adding a filler material to form a pool of molten material that cools to become a strong joint, with pressure sometimes...

, plasma cutting
Plasma cutting
Plasma cutting is a process that is used to cut steel and other metals of different thicknesses using a plasma torch...

, for electrical discharge machining
Electrical discharge machining
Electric discharge machining , sometimes colloquially also referred to as spark machining, spark eroding, burning, die sinking or wire erosion, is a manufacturing process whereby a desired shape is obtained using electrical discharges...

, as an arc lamp
Arc lamp
"Arc lamp" or "arc light" is the general term for a class of lamps that produce light by an electric arc . The lamp consists of two electrodes, first made from carbon but typically made today of tungsten, which are separated by a gas...

 in movie projector
Movie projector
A movie projector is an opto-mechanical device for displaying moving pictures by projecting them on a projection screen. Most of the optical and mechanical elements, except for the illumination and sound devices, are present in movie cameras.-Physiology:...

s and followspot
A followspot, sometimes known as a spot light, is a powerful stage lighting instrument which projects a bright beam of light onto a performance space. Followspots are controlled by a spotlight operator who follows actors around the stage...

s in stage lighting
Stage lighting
Modern stage lighting is a flexible tool in the production of theatre, dance, opera and other performance arts. Several different types of stage lighting instruments are used in the pursuit of the various principles or goals of lighting. Stage lighting has grown considerably in recent years...

. Electric arc furnace
Electric arc furnace
An electric arc furnace is a furnace that heats charged material by means of an electric arc.Arc furnaces range in size from small units of approximately one ton capacity up to about 400 ton units used for secondary steelmaking...

s are used to produce steel
Steel is an alloy that consists mostly of iron and has a carbon content between 0.2% and 2.1% by weight, depending on the grade. Carbon is the most common alloying material for iron, but various other alloying elements are used, such as manganese, chromium, vanadium, and tungsten...

 and other substances. Calcium carbide
Calcium carbide
thumb|right|Calcium carbide.Calcium carbide is a chemical compound with the chemical formula of CaC2. The pure material is colorless, however pieces of technical grade calcium carbide are grey or brown and consist of only 80-85% of CaC2 . Because of presence of PH3, NH3, and H2S it has a...

 is made in this way as it requires a large amount of energy to promote an endothermic
In thermodynamics, the word endothermic describes a process or reaction in which the system absorbs energy from the surroundings in the form of heat. Its etymology stems from the prefix endo- and the Greek word thermasi,...

Chemical reaction
A chemical reaction is a process that leads to the transformation of one set of chemical substances to another. Chemical reactions can be either spontaneous, requiring no input of energy, or non-spontaneous, typically following the input of some type of energy, such as heat, light or electricity...

 (at temperatures of 2500 °C).

Low-pressure electric arcs are used for lighting, e.g., fluorescent tubes
Fluorescent lamp
A fluorescent lamp or fluorescent tube is a gas-discharge lamp that uses electricity to excite mercury vapor. The excited mercury atoms produce short-wave ultraviolet light that then causes a phosphor to fluoresce, producing visible light. A fluorescent lamp converts electrical power into useful...

, mercury and sodium street lamps
Street light
A street light, lamppost, street lamp, light standard, or lamp standard is a raised source of light on the edge of a road or walkway, which is turned on or lit at a certain time every night. Modern lamps may also have light-sensitive photocells to turn them on at dusk, off at dawn, or activate...

, and camera flash lamps.

Formation of an intense electric arc, similar to a small-scale arc flash
Arc flash
An arc flash is a type of electrical explosion that results from a low impedance connection to ground or another voltage phase in an electrical system.-Definition:...

, is the foundation of exploding-bridgewire detonator
Exploding-bridgewire detonator
The exploding-bridgewire detonator is a type of detonator used to initiate the detonation reaction in explosive materials, similar to a blasting cap in that it is fired using an electric current...


Electric arcs have been studied for electric propulsion of spacecraft.

Undesired arcing

Undesired or unintended electric arcing can have detrimental effects on electric power transmission
Electric power transmission
Electric-power transmission is the bulk transfer of electrical energy, from generating power plants to Electrical substations located near demand centers...

, distribution
Electric power distribution
File:Electricity grid simple- North America.svg|thumb|380px|right|Simplified diagram of AC electricity distribution from generation stations to consumers...

 systems and electronic
Electronics is the branch of science, engineering and technology that deals with electrical circuits involving active electrical components such as vacuum tubes, transistors, diodes and integrated circuits, and associated passive interconnection technologies...

 equipment. Devices which may cause arcing include switches, circuit breakers, relay contacts, fuses and poor cable terminations. When an inductive
In electromagnetism and electronics, inductance is the ability of an inductor to store energy in a magnetic field. Inductors generate an opposing voltage proportional to the rate of change in current in a circuit...

 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
A snubber is a device used to suppress voltage transients in electrical systems, pressure transients in fluid systems, or excess force or rapid movement in mechanical systems.-Electrical systems:...

 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
Arc flash
An arc flash is a type of electrical explosion that results from a low impedance connection to ground or another voltage phase in an electrical system.-Definition:...

 describes an explosive electrical event that presents a hazard to people and equipment.

Undesired arcing in electrical contactor
A contactor is an electrically controlled switch used for switching a power circuit, similar to a relay except with higher current ratings. A contactor is controlled by a circuit which has a much lower power level than the switched circuit....

s can be suppressed by various devices, including:
  • immersion in transformer oil
    Transformer oil
    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...

    , dielectric gas
    Dielectric gas
    A dielectric gas, or insulating gas, is a dielectric material in gaseous state. Its main purpose is to prevent or rapidly quench electric discharges. Dielectric gases are used as electrical insulators in high voltage applications, e.g...

     or vacuum
    In everyday usage, vacuum is a volume of space that is essentially empty of matter, such that its gaseous pressure is much less than atmospheric pressure. The word comes from the Latin term for "empty". A perfect vacuum would be one with no particles in it at all, which is impossible to achieve in...

  • arc chutes
  • magnetic blowouts

Arcing can also occur when a low resistance channel (foreign object, conductive dust
Dust consists of particles in the atmosphere that arise from various sources such as soil dust lifted up by wind , volcanic eruptions, and pollution...

, moisture...) forms between places with different potential. The conductive channel then can facilitate formation of an electric arc. The ionized air has high electrical conductivity approaching that of metals, and can conduct extremely high currents, causing a short circuit
Short circuit
A short circuit in an electrical circuit that allows a current to travel along an unintended path, often where essentially no electrical impedance is encountered....

 and tripping protective devices (fuses
Fuse (electrical)
In electronics and electrical engineering, a fuse is a type of low resistance resistor that acts as a sacrificial device to provide overcurrent protection, of either the load or source circuit...

, circuit breaker
Circuit breaker
A circuit breaker is an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by overload or short circuit. Its basic function is to detect a fault condition and, by interrupting continuity, to immediately discontinue electrical flow...

s). 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.

Electric arc over the surface of plastic
A plastic material is any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic solids used in the manufacture of industrial products. Plastics are typically polymers of high molecular mass, and may contain other substances to improve performance and/or reduce production costs...

s causes their degradation. A conductive carbon-rich track tends to form in the arc path, negatively influencing their insulation properties. The arc susceptibility is tested according to ASTM D495, by point electrodes and continuous and intermittent arcs; it is measured in seconds to form a track that is conductive under high-voltage low-current conditions. Some materials are less susceptible to degradation than others; e.g. polytetrafluoroethylene
Polytetrafluoroethylene is a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene that finds numerous applications. PTFE is most well known by the DuPont brand name Teflon....

 has arc resistance of about 200 seconds. From thermosetting plastic
Thermosetting plastic
A thermosetting plastic, also known as a thermoset, is polymer material that irreversibly cures. The cure may be done through heat , through a chemical reaction , or irradiation such as electron beam processing.Thermoset materials are usually liquid or malleable prior to curing and designed to be...

s, alkyd
An alkyd is a polyester modified by the addition of fatty acids and other components. They are derived from polyols and a dicarboxylic acid or carboxylic acid anhydride. The term alkyd is a modification of the original name "alcid", reflecting the fact that they are derived from alcohol and...

s and melamine resin
Melamine resin
Melamine resin or melamine formaldehyde is a hard, thermosetting plastic material made from melamine and formaldehyde by polymerization. In its butylated form, it is dissolved in n-butanol and xylene. It is then used to cross-link with alkyd, epoxy, acrylic and polyester resins, used in surface...

s are better than phenolic resins. Polyethylene
Polyethylene or polythene is the most widely used plastic, with an annual production of approximately 80 million metric tons...

s have arc resistance of about 150 seconds, polystyrene
Polystyrene ) also known as Thermocole, abbreviated following ISO Standard PS, is an aromatic polymer made from the monomer styrene, a liquid hydrocarbon that is manufactured from petroleum by the chemical industry...

s and polyvinyl chloride
Polyvinyl chloride
Polyvinyl chloride, commonly abbreviated PVC, is a thermoplastic polymer. It is a vinyl polymer constructed of repeating vinyl groups having one hydrogen replaced by chloride. Polyvinyl chloride is the third most widely produced plastic, after polyethylene and polypropylene. PVC is widely used in...

s 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.

Arcing over some types of printed circuit board
Printed circuit board
A printed circuit board, or PCB, is used to mechanically support and electrically connect electronic components using conductive pathways, tracks or signal traces etched from copper sheets laminated onto a non-conductive substrate. It is also referred to as printed wiring board or etched wiring...

s, possibly due to cracks of the traces or the failure of a solder, renders the affected insulating layer conductive as the dielectric is combusted
Combustion or burning is the sequence of exothermic chemical reactions between a fuel and an oxidant accompanied by the production of heat and conversion of chemical species. The release of heat can result in the production of light in the form of either glowing or a flame...

 due to the high temperatures involved. This conductivity prolongs the arcing due to cascading failure
Cascading failure
A cascading failure is a failure in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of a part can trigger the failure of successive parts.- Cascading failure in power transmission :...

 of the surface.

The energy of electrical current contact arc yields ozone
Ozone , or trioxygen, is a triatomic molecule, consisting of three oxygen atoms. It is an allotrope of oxygen that is much less stable than the diatomic allotrope...

 (O3), along with other compounds such as nitrous oxide
Nitrous oxide
Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas or sweet air, is a chemical compound with the formula . It is an oxide of nitrogen. At room temperature, it is a colorless non-flammable gas, with a slightly sweet odor and taste. It is used in surgery and dentistry for its anesthetic and analgesic...

s (NO, NOx) and other chemicals and particulates. Unsuppressed arcing breaks down the chemical bonds of the atmospheric gases surrounding the contacts as well as some of the molten metal of the contact material itself. Free ions in and around the arc recombine to create new chemical compounds (for example, breaking atmospheric oxygen into single oxygen [O2 → 2O], which then recombine creating ozone [O3]. These chemicals and particulates are most pronounced when operating contactors, as they typically conduct higher contact power and run in the open. Ozone is most easily noticed during operation due to its distinct odor. Another environmental impact of undesired arcing is determined by the fact that the contact degradation drastically limits the overall life of a relay or conductor (the mechanical life of the device, which can be in excess of 20 million operations, is reduced to a range of about 10,000 to 100,000 operations), thus ending up much earlier in landfills and requiring faster replacement.

Arc suppression

Arc suppression is a method of attempting to reduce to near elimination the electrical arc. There are several possible areas of use of arc suppression methods, among them metal film deposition and sputtering
Sputter deposition
Sputter deposition is a physical vapor deposition method of depositing thin films by sputtering, that is ejecting, material from a "target," that is source, which then deposits onto a "substrate," such as a silicon wafer...

, arc flash protection, electrostatic processes where electrical arcs are not desired (such as powder painting
Powder painting
Powder Painting is the art of using ground glass in powdered form to create kilnformed glass art. The process differs from enameling in many respects. Firstly, the powder is actually ground glass typically from a single manufacturer who supplies an extensive color palate...

, air purification
Air purifier
An air purifier is a device which removes contaminants from the air. These devices are commonly marketed as being beneficial to allergy sufferers and asthmatics, and at reducing or eliminating second-hand tobacco smoke...

Polyvinylidene fluoride
Polyvinylidene fluoride, or PVDF is a highly non-reactive and pure thermoplastic fluoropolymer.PVDF is a specialty plastic material in the fluoropolymer family; it is used generally in applications requiring the highest purity, strength, and resistance to solvents, acids, bases and heat and low...

 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 refers to the concept of contact protection.

External links

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