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Electric Arc

Electric arc

An electric arc is a device in which an electric current (a flow of electrons) is caused to flow between two points separated by a gas. The two points are called electrodes. The one from which the current originates is the cathode. The electrode toward which electrons flow is the anode. The term electric arc refers both to the device itself as well as to the electric discharge that takes place within the device. Arcs can make use of high, atmospheric, or low pressures and can contain a variety of gases. They have wide uses as luminous lamps; as furnaces; for heating, cutting, and welding; and as tools for certain kinds of chemical analysis.

Electrical conductivity in gases

Gases are normally poor conductors of electricity. The atoms or molecules of which they consist usually contain no free electrons needed for a current to flow. That condition can change, however. If sufficient energy is supplied to the gas, its atoms or molecules will break apart (ionize) into charged particles. If a spark is passed through a container of oxygen gas, for example, oxygen molecules ionize to form some positively charged oxygen ions and some negatively charged oxygen ions. These charged particles then make it possible for the gas to become conductive.

Arc construction

In an electric arc, the energy needed to produce ionization comes from an external source, such as an electric generator. An intense stream of electrons flows into the cathode and then across the gas-filled gap to the anode. As these electrons pass through the gas, they cause ionization. Ions formed in the process make the flow of current between electrodes even easier. For every gas, some minimum amount of energy is needed

to produce ionization at a given temperature and pressure. That energy is known as the gas's breakdown potential.

One example of an electric arc is a lightning bolt. In nature, two clouds can act as electrodes, or electric current may flow between a cloud and Earth's surface. In either case, current flows through the air, ionizing molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases in the atmosphere.

The light and sound associated with lightning are evidence of an important change that occurs in the gas between electrodes. The flow of electric current heats the gas to high temperatures. The light associated with lightning is evidence of that change. The clap of thunder is another sign of the changethe heated air around the lightning bolt expands rapidly, producing a sound wave.

The simplest electric arc consists of two electrodes made of a conducting material and situated a short distance from each other. Air is the gas used in this arc. This kind of electric arc was first studied by English physicist and chemist Humphry Davy (17781829) in 1808.

Various types of electric arcs differ from each other in two respects: the pressure at which they operate and the materials of which they are made. Electric arcs can be enclosed in glass or plastic containers from which air has been pumped out (vacuum arcs) or to which air or some other gas has been added (high pressure arcs).

The light produced by an arc depends both on the material from which the electrodes are made and on the gas that separates them. Some electrodes have no function other than to conduct an electric current into and out of the arc. Other electrodes are chosen because they tend to vaporize when the arc is used, changing the discharge that is produced. Various gases are chosen for use in electric arcs because they too affect the discharges produced. For instance, each chemical element produces its own characteristic color when ionized.

Uses of electric arcs

Many types of arcs exist, each with its own applications. For example, arc welders are used for welding (where a metal is fused and added in a joint). In some cases, the arc's only function is to supply heat. In other cases, the metal from one electrode may actually be used in forming the weld. Plasma torches are used for cutting, spraying, and gas heating. Plasma is a term used for hot, ionized gases. Cutting a metal with a plasma torch may be done by means of an arc formed between the metal itself and an electrode from the torch.

Electric arcs are often used as lamps because of the amount of light they produce. That light comes from hot, glowing electrodes (carbon arcs) and, sometimes, from heated gases (flame arcs). The carbon arc, in which two carbon rods serve as electrodes, was the first practical commercial lighting device. It remains one of the brightest sources of light and is still used in theater motion-picture projectors, large searchlights, and lighthouses. Flame arcs are used in color photography and in photochemical processes because they closely approximate natural sunshine. The carbon is saturated with chemicals that boil off easily. These chemicals become luminous when they evaporate and are heated by the arc.

The color of flame arcs depends on the material of which the electrodes are made. For example, calcium arcs give off a red glow, while barium arcs give off a green glow. In some flame arcs, the radiation produced is outside the visible range. Mercury arcs at high pressure produce ultraviolet radiation. They also can produce visible light in a low pressure tube if the internal walls of the tube are coated with a fluorescent material known as a phosphor. The phosphor emits visible light when struck by ultraviolet radiation from the mercury.

Arcs can also be used in radio valves, such as those used in the early days of radio, and as a source of ions in nuclear reactors and thermonuclear devices (devices for controlling the release of nuclear power).

[See also Electricity; Electronics ]

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Electric Arc

Electric Arc

Electrical conduction in gases

Properties of the arc

Uses of electric arcs

An electric arc is an electrical discharge between electrodes in the presence of gases. In an electric arc, electrons are emitted from a heated cathode. Arcs can be formed in high, atmospheric, or low pressures and in various gases. They are used for highly luminous lamps, furnaces, cutting and welding, and as tools for spectrochemical analysis.

Electrical conduction in gases

Gases consist of neutral molecules, and are, therefore, good insulators; they do not supply free electrons that can move and so constitute an electrical current. Yet under certain conditions, a breakdown of this insulating property occurs, and current can pass through the gas. Several phenomena are associated with the electric discharge in gases; among them are the spark, dark (Townsend) discharge, glow, corona, and arc. In air under ordinary conditions, an electric field of intensity of about 30,000 volts per centimeter will separate electrons from air molecules and allow a current to flowa spark or arc.

In order to conduct electricity, two conditions are required. First, the normally neutral gas must create charges or accept them from external sources, or both. Second, an electric field should exist to produce the directional motion of the charges. A charged atom or molecule, or ion, can be positive or negative; electrons are negative charges. In electrical devices, an electric field is produced between two electrodes, called anode and cathode, made of conducting materials. The process of changing a neutral atom or molecule into an ion is called ionization. Ionized gas is called plasma. Conduction in gases is distinguished from conduction in solids and liquids in that the gases play an active role in the process. The gas not only permits free charges to pass though, but itself may produce charges. Cumulative ionization occurs when the original electron and its offspring gain enough energy, so each can produce another electron. When the process is repeated over and over, the resulting process is called an avalanche.

For any gas at a given pressure and temperature there is a certain voltage value, called breakdown potential, that will produce ionization. Application of a voltage above the critical value would initially cause the current to increase due to cumulative ionization, and the voltage is then decreased. If the pressure is not too low, conduction is concentrated into a narrow, illuminated, spark channel. By receiving energy from the current, the channel becomes hot and may produce shock waves. Natural phenomena are the lightning and the associated thunder, that consist of high voltages and currents that cannot be artificially achieved.

An arc can be produced in high pressure following a spark. This occurs when steady conditions are achieved, and the voltage is low but sufficient to maintain the required current. In low pressures, the transient stage of the spark leads to the glow discharge, and an arc can later be formed when the current is further increased. In arcs, the thermionic effect is responsible for the production of free electrons that are emitted from the hot cathode. A strong electric field at the metallic surface lowers the barrier for electron emission, and provides a field emission. Because of the high temperature and the high current involved, however, some of the mechanisms of arcs cannot be easily studied.

Properties of the arc

The electric arc was first detected in 1808 by British chemist Humphry Davy. He saw a brilliant luminous flame when two carbon rods conducting a current were separated, and the convection current of hot gas deflected it in the shape of an arc. Typical characteristics of an arc include a relatively low potential gradient between the electrodes (less than a few tens of volts), and a high current density (from 0.1 amperes to thousands amperes or higher). High gas temperatures (several thousands or tens of thousands degrees Kelvin) exist in the conducting channel, especially in high gas pressures. Vaporization of the electrodes is also common, and the gas contains molecules of the electrodes material. In some cases, a hissing sound may be heard, making the arc sing. The potential gradient between the electrodes is not uniform. In most cases, one can distinguish between three different regions: the area close to the positive electrode, termed cathode fall ; the area close to the negative electrode, or anode rise ; and the main arc body. Within the arc body there is a uniform voltage gradient. This region is electrically neutral, where the cumulative ionization results in the number of positive ions equals the number of electrons or negative ions. The ionization occurs mainly due to excitation of the molecules and the gain of high temperature.

The cathode fall region is about 0.01 mm with a potential difference of less than about 10 volts. Often thermionic emission would be achieved at the cathode. The electrodes in this case are made of refractive materials like tungsten and carbon, and the region contains an excess of positive ions and a large electric current. At the cathode, transition is made from a metallic conductor in which current is carried by electrons, to a gas in which conduction is done by both electrons, or negative ions and positive ions. The gaseous positive ions may reach the cathode freely and form a potential barrier. Electrons emitted from the cathode must overcome this barrier in order to enter the gas.

At the anode, transition is made from a gas, in which both electrons and positive ions conduct current, to the metallic conductor, in which current is carried only by electrons. With a few exceptions, positive ions do not enter the gas from the metal. Electrons are accelerated towards the anode and provide, through ionization, a supply of ions for the column. The electron current may raise the anode to a high temperature, making it a thermionic emitter, but the emitted electrons are returned to the anode, contributing to the large negative space charge around it. The melting of the electrodes and the introduction of their vapor to the gas adds to the pressure in their vicinities.

Uses of electric arcs

There are many types of arc devices. Some operate at atmospheric pressure and may be open, and others operate at low pressure and are therefore closed in a container, like glass. The property of high current in the arc is used in the mercury arc rectifiers, like the

Key Terms

Artificial (hot) arc An electric arc whose cathode is heated by an external source to provide thermionic emission, and not by the discharge itself.

Cold cathode arc An electric arc that operates on low boiling-point materials.

Thermionic arc An electric arc in which the electron current from the cathode is provided predominantly by thermionic emission.

thyratron. An alternate potential difference is applied, and the arc transfers the current in one direction only. The cathode is heated by a filament.

The high temperature created by an electric arc in the gas is used in furnaces. Arc welders are used for welding, where a metal is fused and added in a joint. The arc can supply the heat only, or one of its electrodes can serve as the consumable parent metal. Plasma torches are used for cutting, spraying, and gas heating. Cutting may be done by means of an arc formed between the metal and the electrode.

Arc lamps provide high luminous efficiency and great brightness. The light comes from the highly incandescence (about 7,000°F [3,871°C]) electrodes, as in carbon arcs, or from the heated, ionized gases surrounded the arc, as in flame arcs. The carbon arc, where two carbon rods serve as electrodes, was the first practical commercial electric lighting device, and it is still one of the brightest sources of light. It is used in theater motion-picture projectors, large searchlights, and lighthouses. Flame arcs are used in color photography and in photochemical processes because they closely approximate natural sunshine. The carbon is impregnated with volatile chemicals, which become luminous when evaporated and driven into the arc. The color of the arc depends on the material; the material could be calcium, barium, titanium, or strontium. In some, the wavelength of the radiation is out of the visible spectrum. Mercury arcs produce ultraviolet radiation at high pressure. They can also produce visible light in a low pressure tube, if the internal walls are coated with fluorescence material such as phosphor; the phosphor emits light when illuminated by the ultraviolet radiation from the mercury.

Other uses of arcs include valves (used in the early days of the radio), and as a source of ions in nuclear accelerators and thermonuclear devices. The excitation of electrons in the arc, in particular the direct electron bombardment, leads to narrow spectral lines. The arc, therefore, can provide information on the composition of the electrodes. The spectra of metal alloys are widely studied using arcs; the metals are incorporated with the electrodes material, and when vaporized, they produce distinct spectra.

See also Electronics.

Ilana Steinhorn

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"Electric Arc." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/electric-arc