Future spacecraft carrying humans require thermal management systems with high turn-down capabilities. In widely varying thermal environments, thermal switches can dissipate a wide range of heat loads. Thermal switches are electromechanical on/off switches, and they are thermally actuated. In contrast with thermal fuses, thermal switches are reusable. They are well suited for protection against common temporary thermal situations, that the user can correct.
A temperature differential activates a thermal switch. When activated, the state of the switch changes over from either normally open to closed or normally closed to open. The movement of the contacts can generate a faint audible noise, as they interrupt the power to an electrical circuit.
Applications of thermal switches include preventing damage from over-heating of electrical circuits. However, these switches may also be useful as temperature control devices, such as in water heaters. The switches are helpful in preventing overheating in various consumer, industrial, and commercial products. In practice, they control the power to circuitry in electric motors, power supplies, lighting fixtures, transformers, ballasts, and battery packs. When controlling temperature, these switches are useful in electronic cooling fans, heat pumps, low voltage relays, or gas furnaces operated by a solenoid valve.
Several types of thermal switches are available. These include bi-metallic disc or snap action, mercury switches, thermal reed switches, rod and tube switches, vapor-tension switches, and gas-activated switches.
The snap action or bi-metallic disc switches operate based on the phenomenon of thermal expansion. The switch has two dissimilar metals that expand at different rates. As the temperature reaches the threshold, the snap action of the discs forces the switch to activate.
In mercury switches, the contacts are sealed within a glass envelope containing a small amount of mercury. At temperatures above 40 ℃, mercury is always in a liquid state. As mercury is also a good conductor, it can make or break the contacts based on the angle of inclination. Typically mounted on a metal coil, the switch activates with thermal expansion that causes the coil to tilt.
Thermal reed switches have a pair of contacts on ferrous metal reeds inside a hermetically sealed glass tube. As the metal reeds are ferrous, a magnetic field can activate them. The switch can have either normally open or normally closed contacts, kept in that state by a ferromagnetic material surrounding the glass tube. As temperature rises and reaches the curie point of the ferromagnetic material, it loses its magnetic strength, and this alters the state of the contacts.
Rod and tube thermal switches are made of an outer tube surrounding an internal rod, both made of metals with dissimilar coefficients of thermal expansion. When the temperature rises, the rod expands faster than the tube can, and induces a plunger-style contact. Rod and tube thermal switches have rapid response times and can operate at high temperatures.
Vapor tension or gas-activated thermal switches use a sensing bulb with a gas or vapor inside. As temperature rises, the thermal expansion of the vapor or gas leads to a proportional pressure increase on a piston assembly or a diaphragm, actuating an electrical switching system.