In a Vacuum circuit breaker, vacuum interrupters are used for breaking and making load and fault currents. When the contacts in vacuum interrupter separate, the current to be interrupted initiates a metal vapour arc discharge and flows through the plasma until the next current zero.
The arc is then extinguished and the conductive metal vapour condenses on the metal surfaces within a matter of micro seconds. As a result the dielectric strength in the breaker builds up very rapidly.
The properties of a vacuum interrupter depend largely on the material and form of the contacts. Over the period of their development, various types of contact material have been used. At the moment it is accepted that an oxygen free copper chromium alloy is the best material for High voltage circuit breaker. In this alloy , chromium is distributed through copper in the form of fine grains.
his material combines good arc extinguishing characteristic with a reduced tendency to contact welding and low chopping current when switching inductive current. The use of this special material is that the current chopping is limited to 4 to 5 Amps.
At current under 10KA, the Vacuum arc burns as a diffuse discharge. At high values of current the arc changes to a constricted form with an anode spot. A constricted arc that remain on one spot for too long can thermically over stress the contacts to such a degree that the deionization of the contact zone at current zero can no longer be guaranteed . To overcome this problem the arc root must be made to move over the contact surface. In order to achieve this, contacts are so shaped that the current flow through them results in a magnetic field being established which is at right angles to the arc axis. This radial field causes the arc root to rotate rapidly around the contact resulting in a uniform distribution of the heat over its surface. Contacts of this type are called radial magnetic field electrodes and they are used in the majority of circuit breakers for medium voltage application.
A new design has come in Vacuum interrupter, in which switching over the arc from diffusion to constricted state by subjecting the arc to an axial magnetic field. Such a field can be provided by leading the arc current through a coil suitably arranged outside the vacuum chamber. Alternatively the field can be provided by designing the contact to give the required contact path. Such contacts are called axial magnetic field electrodes. This principle has advantages when the short circuit current is in excess of 31.5 KA.