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A relay is an electrical switch that opens and closes under the control of another electrical circuit. In the original form, the switch is operated by an electromagnet to open or close one or many sets of contacts. It was invented by Joseph Henry in 1835. Because a relay is able to control an output circuit of higher power than the input circuit, it can be considered, in a broad sense, to be a form of an electrical amplifier.
When a current flows through the coil, the resulting magnetic field attracts an armature that is mechanically linked to a moving contact. The movement either makes or breaks a connection with a fixed contact. When the current to the coil is switched off, the armature is returned by a force approximately half as strong as the magnetic force to its relaxed position. Usually this is a spring, but gravity is also used commonly in industrial motor starters. Most relays are manufactured to operate quickly. In a low voltage application, this is to reduce noise. In a high voltage or high current application, this is to reduce arcing.
If the coil is energized with DC, a diode is frequently installed across the coil, to dissipate the energy from the collapsing magnetic field at deactivation, which would otherwise generate a spike of voltage and might cause damage to circuit components. Some automotive relays already include that diode inside the relay case. Alternatively a contact protection network, consisting of a capacitor and resistor in series, may absorb the surge. If the coil is designed to be energized with AC, a small copper ring can be crimped to the end of the solenoid.
By analogy with the functions of the original electromagnetic device, a solid-state relay is made with a thyristor or other solid-state switching device. To achieve electrical isolation an optocoupler can be used which is a light-emitting diode (LED) coupled with a photo transistor.
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Relay cross reference, Relay cross ref