Breaking of a short circuit current in a direct current system

Breaking of a short circuit current

Direct current presents different problems than alternating current with aregard to the phenomena associated to the breaking of a short circuit current and interruption of other types of high value current since the arc extinction results to be particularly difficult.

As Figure 1 shows, with alternating current there is natural passage of current through zero at each half cycle, which corresponds to the quenching of the arc during the circuit opening.

Breaking of a short circuit current in a direct current system
Breaking of a short circuit current in a direct current system (on photo: ABB Sace Tmax T7N-D/PV 1000 M Molded Case Switch Circuit Breaker)

With direct current (see figure 2) there is not such natural passage and therefore, to guarantee arc extinction, the current must decrease to null (forcing the current passage through zero).

Alternating current
Figure 1 – Alternating current

Direct current
Figure 2 – Direct current

Equivalent circuit //

To understand the above, reference to the circuit shown in the figure shall be made:

Direct current circuit
Direct current circuit

In this case:

Rated voltage of the supply source


  • U is the rated voltage of the supply source L is the inductance of the circuit
  • R is the resistance of the circuit
  • Ua is the arc voltage.

The formula can be written also as:

Inductance of the circuit

To guarantee arc extinction, it is necessary that:

Arc extinction guarantee

This relationship shall be verified when the arc voltage (Ua) is so high that the first member of the formula (1) becomes negative. Apart from mathematical considerations deriving from the integration of formula (1), it is possible to conclude that the extinction time of a direct current is proportional to the time constant of the circuit T = L / R and to the extinction constant.

The extinction constant is a parameter depending on the arc characteristic and on the circuit supply voltage.

Lab testing of DC circuit breaker

ABB SACE power testing laboratory
ABB SACE power testing laboratory

The following figure shows an oscillogram relative to a short circuit test carried out in ABB SACE power testing laboratories.


  • Ip – Short circuit making current
  • Icn – Prospective short circuit current
  • Ua – Maximum arc voltage
  • Un – Network voltage
  • T – Time constant
  • to – Instant of beginning of short circuit
  • ts – Instant of beginning of separation of the CB contacts
  • ta – Instant of quenching of the fault current
An oscillogram relative to a short circuit test carried out in ABB SACE power testing laboratories
An oscillogram relative to a short circuit test carried out in ABB SACE power testing laboratories

When a short circuit occurs, in correspondence to the instant to, the current starts rising according to the time constant of the circuit.

The circuit breaker contacts begin separating, thus striking an arc starting from the instant ts. The current keeps on rising for a short instant also after the beginning of contact opening, and then decreases depending on the value higher and higher of the arc resistance progressively introduced in the circuit.

As it can be noticed in the graph, the arc voltage keeps higher than the supply voltage of the circuit during the interruption. In correspondence of ta, the current is completely quenched.

As the graph shows, the short circuit current represented by the red line is extinguished without abrupt interruptions which could cause high voltage peaks.

As a consequence, to obtain a gradual extinction (the graph represents the descent of Ip), it is necessary to cool and extend the arc, so that a higher and higher arc resistance is inserted in the circuit (with the consequent increase of the arc voltage Ua).

This extinction involves energetic phenomena which depend on the voltage level of the plant (Un) and lead to install circuit breakers according to connection diagrams in series to the advantage of the performances under short circuit conditions. As a matter of fact, the higher is the number of contacts opening the circuit, the higher is the breaking capacity of the circuit breaker.

This means that, when the voltage rises, it is necessary to increase the number of current interruptions in series, so that a rise in the arc voltage is obtained and consequently a number of poles for breaking operation suitable to the fault level.

To summarize //

In order to guarantee breaking of a short circuit current in a DC system it is necessary to employ circuit breakers which can ensure:

  1. Rapid tripping with adequate breaking capacity
  2. High fault current limiting capacity
  3. Overvoltage reduction effect.

Interesting video //

DC circuit breaker fires

Reference // Circuit breakers for direct current applications – Technical paper by ABB

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About Author //


Edvard Csanyi

Edvard - Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized for design of LV/MV switchgears and LV high power busbar trunking (<6300A) in power substations, commercial buildings and industry fascilities. Professional in AutoCAD programming. Present on


  1. David Renshaw
    Aug 31, 2016

    A comment on the embedded video from ABB: “DC circuit breaker fires”
    The polarity marking -if any- on these breakers is not obvious; it may be visible if you look hard enough, but in the interests of safety it should be far more prominent. I’m not surprised if there have been a few accidents. Of course, many DC breakers are not polarity-sensitive, but it would appear that these ‘miniature’ ones (DIN-rail mounted MCBs) often are.

    It might also be interesting to include results for single-phase rectified AC -which in practice would almost always be full-wave rectification. The breaker should have an easier task because of the presence of zero-current points. (Obviously for 3-phase rectified AC there are no such instants of zero-current & as far as the breaker was concerned it would be almost equivalent to smooth DC.)

  2. Yousef
    Aug 30, 2016

    Thanks. It was very useful.

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