Arc flashes — which are electrical discharges that can explode from one high voltage source to a nearby conductor — can reach temperatures as high as 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The bright fireballs that erupt not only melt metals and damage circuits, they cause more than 2,000 people a year to be admitted to burn centers with severe arc flash burns — and can kill at distances of 10 feet, according to the National Fire Protection Association. That’s why every millisecond counts when trying to stop one — and GE’s new breakthrough technology called Arc Vault, which was unveiled this week, is now the industry’s fastest, containing a blast in a flash: just 8 milliseconds. The 30-second clip found by clicking on the link shows just how deadly an arc flash can be.

In simple terms, an arc flash works the same way as the static electricity that shocks you after walking across a carpet and touching your TV. Except when working with high voltage equipment, that carpet shock is a fireball that that can cause burns and propel shrapnel and molten metal at more than 700 mph. “With containment times of 50 milliseconds to 100 milliseconds, other systems in the industry will seem slow compared to the Arc Vault system,” says GE’s Paul Foody, general manager of GE Consumer & Industrial’s electrical distribution business.

GE’s Arc Vault — which was developed for delivery in mid-2010 — will contain a blast with the circuit breaker compartment doors open during operation and maintenance. Conversely, traditional technologies provides protection when all circuit breaker compartment doors are closed. In those systems, if an arc flash occurs, the energy is exhausted away by using a chimney or vent. The problem is that circuit breaker doors are usually open during routine maintenance.

GE’s technology will detect an arc flash by sensing the current — and by spotting the flash with a light sensor. When an arc flash erupts, the system sends a signal to GE’s unique arc containment dome — which begins a de-energizing process that reduces the energy released by 63 percent or more. It not only is safer, but the system can be brought back on line much more quickly after an arc flash since there are fewer replacement parts required. It also reduces building construction costs, compared to traditional arc resistant systems, because it doesn’t require exhaust chimneys or vents to direct the arc flash energy outside of the building.

Although the video below is intended for a trade audience, it does a great job of explaining arc flashes and the technology behind GE’s new Arc Vault system.

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