An inductor usually stores energy when current flows through it, and releases it once the current flow stops. When the power supply to an inductor is suddenly reduced or removed, the inductor generates a voltage spike, which is also referred to as an inductive fly-back. Any current flowing through the inductor cannot change instantly and is limited by the time constant of the inductor. This is similar to the time constant of a capacitor, which limits the rate of change of voltage across its terminals.
The time constant of an inductor is the product of its inductance in Henries and the resistance present in the circuit. Usually, all current can be considered to have been dissipated within five time constants once the inductor has been disconnected. The process of inductive fly-back is best explained with an example – a 10H inductor in series with a 10Ω resistor, is charged long enough through a closed switch so that maximum amount of current is now flowing through the circuit.
When the switch is suddenly opened, the current flow has to come to zero within five seconds (five time constants). However, the switch opens far faster than five seconds, which implies current flow through an open switch – an impossible situation.
However, this can be explained by considering the switch to be bridged by air resistance of an extremely high value – 40,000,000 MΩ. Therefore, the inductor, in trying to keep the current flowing through the circuit will send a minute amount of current through this big air-resistor. According to Ohm’s law, every resistor will have a voltage drop commensurate with the current flowing through it. To maintain the current flow in the same direction, the inductor will have to change the polarity of the voltage across itself.
At the instant the switch opened, the current through the circuit would have been about 99% of the maximum current. Such a current multiplied by the extremely high resistance of the air gap will result in a huge voltage. Such a large voltage drop is possible because the inductor has stored energy, which it will use to create a very large negative potential on one side of the gap. That ensures the current flow will match the dissipation curve of the inductor. This is the origin of the huge fly-back voltage spike associated with the sudden disruption of current through an inductor.
The fly-back voltage generated by an inductor can be potentially damaging. Not only can the arc generated damage the insulation of the inductor, it can damage the switch or component being used to open or close the circuit. The arcing effect has been dramatically captured in this short video.
The use of a fly-back diode precludes the possibility of damage from an inductive fly-back. The diode provides a path for the inductor to drive the current flow once the circuit has been opened. As long as the circuit is closed, the diode is reverse biased and does not contribute to the functioning of the circuit.
When the switch opens, the inductor has a path to maintain the current flow through the diode. As the inductor reverses its polarity, it forward biases the diode, which then conducts current for the five time constants, until the current reduces to zero. That prevents the voltage spike.