All circuit breakers have common features in their operation, although details vary substantially depending on the voltage class, current rating and type of the circuit breaker.
The circuit breaker must detect a fault condition; in low-voltage circuit breakers this is usually done within the breaker enclosure. Circuit breakers for large currents or high voltages are usually arranged with pilot devices to sense a fault current and to operate the trip opening mechanism. The trip solenoid that releases the latch is usually energized by a separate battery, although some high-voltage circuit breakers are self-contained with current transformers, protection relays, and an internal control power source.
Once a fault is detected, contacts within the circuit breaker must open to interrupt the circuit; some mechanically-stored energy (using something such as springs or compressed air) contained within the breaker is used to separate the contacts, although some of the energy required may be obtained from the fault current itself. Small circuit breakers may be manually operated, larger units have solenoids to trip the mechanism, and electric motors to restore energy to the springs.
The circuit breaker contacts must carry the load current without excessive heating, and must also withstand the heat of the arc produced when interrupting (opening) the circuit. Contacts are made of copper or copper alloys, silver alloys, and other highly conductive materials. Service life of the contacts is limited by the erosion of contact material due to arcing while interrupting the current. Miniature and molded case circuit breakers are usually discarded when the contacts have worn, but power circuit breakers and high-voltage circuit breakers have replaceable contacts.
When a current is interrupted, an arc is generated. This arc must be contained, cooled, and extinguished in a controlled way, so that the gap between the contacts can again withstand the voltage in the circuit. Different circuit breakers use vacuum, air, insulating gas, or oil as the medium the arc forms in. Different techniques are used to extinguish the arc including:
- Lengthening / deflection of the arc
- Intensive cooling (in jet chambers)
- Division into partial arcs
- Zero point quenching (Contacts open at the zero current time crossing of the AC waveform, effectively breaking no load current at the time of opening. The zero crossing occurs at twice the line frequency i.e. 100 times per second for 50 Hz and 120 times per second for 60 Hz AC)
- Connecting capacitors in parallel with contacts in DC circuits
Finally, once the fault condition has been cleared, the contacts must again be closed to restore power to the interrupted circuit.
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