High-voltage discharges of 500,000 – 1,000,000 Volts
The dielectric breakdown strength of dry air, at Standard Temperature and Pressure (STP), between spherical electrodes is approximately 33 kV/cm. This is only as a rough guide, since the actual breakdown voltage is highly dependent upon the electrode shape and size. Strong electric fields (from high voltages applied to small or pointed conductors) often produce violet-colored corona discharges in air, as well as visible sparks. Voltages below about 500–700 volts cannot produce easily visible sparks or glows in air at atmospheric pressure, so by this rule these voltages are “low”. However, under conditions of low atmospheric pressure (such as in high-altitude aircraft), or in an environment of noble gas such as argon or neon, sparks appear at much lower voltages. 500 to 700 volts is not a fixed minimum for producing spark breakdown, but it is a rule-of-thumb. For air at STP, the minimum sparkover voltage is around 327 volts, as noted by Friedrich Paschen.
While lower voltages do not, in general, jump a gap that is present before the voltage is applied, interrupting an existing current flow with a gap often produces a low-voltage spark or arc. As the contacts are separated, a few small points of contact become the last to separate. The current becomes constricted to these small hot spots, causing them to become incandescent, so that they emit electrons (through thermionic emission). Even a small 9 V battery can spark noticeably by this mechanism in a darkened room. The ionized air and metal vapour (from the contacts) form plasma, which temporarily bridges the widening gap. If the power supply and load allow sufficient current to flow, a self-sustaining arc may form. Once formed, an arc may be extended to a significant length before breaking the circuit. Attempting to open an inductive circuit often forms an arc, since the inductance provides a high-voltage pulse whenever the current is interrupted. AC systems make sustained arcing somewhat less likely, since the current returns to zero twice per cycle. The arc is extinguished every time the current goes through a zero crossing, and must reignite during the next half-cycle to maintain the arc.
Unlike an ohmic conductor, the resistance of an arc decreases as the current increases. This makes unintentional arcs in an electrical apparatus dangerous since even a small arc can grow large enough to damage equipment and start fires if sufficient current is available. Intentionally produced arcs, such as used in lighting or welding, require some element in the circuit to stabilize the arc’s current/voltage characteristics.