Intrinsic safety (IS) is a protection technique for safe operation of electronic equipment in explosive atmospheres and under irregular operating conditions. The concept was developed for safe operation of process control instrumentation in hazardous areas, particularly North Sea gas platforms. As a discipline, it is an application of inherent safety in instrumentation.
The theory behind intrinsic safety is to ensure that the available electrical and thermal energy in the system is always low enough that ignition of the hazardous atmosphere cannot occur. This is achieved by ensuring that only low voltages and currents enter the hazardous area, and that all electric supply and signal wires are protected by zener safety barriers. Sometimes an alternative type of barrier known as a galvanic isolation barrier may be used.
In normal uses, electrical equipment often creates internal tiny sparks in switches, motor brushes, connectors, and in other places. Such sparks can ignite flammable substances present in air.
A device termed intrinsically safe is designed to not contain any components that produce sparks or which can hold enough energy to produce a spark of sufficient energy to cause an ignition. For example, during marine transfer operations when flammable products are transferred between the marine terminal and tanker ships or barges, two-way radio communication needs to be constantly maintained in case the transfer needs to stop for unforeseen reasons such as a spill. The United States Coast Guard requires that the two way radio must be certified as intrinsically safe.
Another aspect of intrinsic safety is controlling abnormal small component temperatures. Under certain fault conditions (such as an internal short inside a semiconductor device), the temperature of a component case can rise to a much higher level than in normal use. Safeguards, such as current limiting by resistors and fuses, must be employed to ensure that in no case can a component reach a temperature that could cause autoignition of a combustible atmosphere.
No single field device or wiring is intrinsically safe by itself (except for battery-operated, self contained devices), but is intrinsically safe only when employed in a properly designed IS system. All systems are provided with detailed instructions with the proper instructions to ensure safe use.