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Solenoid Actuators

A solenoid actuator is a control device that uses electromagnetism to convert electrical energy into mechanical motion. The movement of the solenoid may be used to close a set of electrical contacts, cause the movement of a mechanical device, or both at the same time.

The figure below is a cutaway view of a solenoid showing the solenoid action. A solenoid is an electromagnet formed by a conductor wound in a series of loops in the shape of a spiral. Inserted within this coil is a soft-iron core and a movable plunger. The soft-iron core is pinned or held in an immovable position. The movable plunger (also soft iron) is held away from the core by a spring when the solenoid is deenergized.

Solenoid action
Solenoid actuator.

When current flows through the conductor, it produces a magnetic field. The magnetic flux produced by the coil results in establishing north and south poles in both the core and the plunger. The plunger is attracted along the lines of force to a position at the center of the coil. The deenergized position of the plunger is partially out of the coil due to the action of the spring. When voltage is applied, the current through the coil produces a magnetic field. This magnetic field draws the plunger within the coil, resulting in mechanical motion. When the coil is deenergized, the plunger returns to its normal position because of spring action. The effective strength of the magnetic field on the plunger varies according to the distance between the plunger and the core. For short distances, the strength of the field is strong; and as distances increase, the strength of the field drops off quite rapidly.

While a solenoid is a control device, the solenoid itself is energized by some other control device such as a switch or a relay. One of the distinct advantages in the use of solenoids is that a mechanical movement can be accomplished at a considerable distance from the control device. The only link necessary between the control device and the solenoid is the electrical wiring for the coil current. The solenoid can have large contacts for the control of high current. Therefore, the solenoid also provides a means of controlling high current with a low current switch.

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