FHSST Physics/Magnets and Electromagnetism/Alternating Current

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The Free High School Science Texts: A Textbook for High School Students Studying Physics
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Magnets and Electromagnetism
Permanent Magnets - Electromagnetism - Magnetic Units of Measurement - Electromagnetic Induction - Alternating Current - Measurements of AC Magnitude

Alternating Current[edit]

Most students of electromagnetism begin their study with what is known as direct current (DC). In a DC system, the current (the flow of charged particles) is in a constant direction. In a DC system, the voltage across each part has a constant polarity. DC is the kind of electric power made by a battery (with definite positive and negative terminals), or the kind of charge generated by rubbing certain types of materials against each other.

As useful and as easy to understand as DC is, it is not the only "kind" of electric power in use. Certain sources of electric power (most notably, rotary electro-mechanical generators) naturally produce voltages alternating in polarity, reversing positive and negative over time. Either as a voltage switching polarity or as a current switching direction back and forth, this "kind" of electric power is known as Alternating Current (AC):

Fhsst electromag11.png

Whereas the familiar battery symbol is used as a generic symbol for any DC voltage source, the circle with the wavy line inside is the generic symbol for any AC voltage source.

One might wonder why anyone would bother with such a thing as AC. It is true that in some cases AC holds no practical advantage over DC. In applications where electricity is used to dissipate energy in the form of heat, the polarity or direction of current is irrelevant, so long as there is enough voltage and current to the load to produce the desired heat (power dissipation). However, with AC it is possible to build electric generators, motors and power distribution systems that are far more efficient than DC, and so we find AC used predominately across the world in high power applications. To explain the details of why this is so, a bit of background knowledge about AC is necessary.

If a machine is constructed to rotate a magnetic field around a set of stationary wire coils with the turning of a shaft, AC voltage will be produced across the wire coils as that shaft is rotated, in accordance with Faraday's Law of electromagnetic induction. This is the basic operating principle of an AC generator, also known as an alternator:

Fhsst electromag12.png

Notice how the polarity of the voltage across the wire coils reverses as the opposite poles of the rotating magnet pass by. Connected to a load, this reversing voltage polarity will create a reversing current direction in the circuit. The faster the alternator's shaft is turned, the faster the magnet will spin, resulting in an alternating voltage and current that switches directions more often in a given amount of time.

While DC generators work on the same general principle of electromagnetic induction, their construction is not as simple as their AC counterparts. With a DC generator, the coil of wire is mounted in the shaft where the magnet is on the AC alternator, and electrical connections are made to this spinning coil via stationary carbon "brushes" contacting copper strips on the rotating shaft. All this is necessary to switch the coil's changing output polarity to the external circuit so the external circuit sees a constant polarity:

Fhsst electromag13.png

The generator shown above will produce two pulses of voltage per revolution of the shaft, both pulses in the same direction (polarity). In order for a DC generator to produce constant voltage, rather than brief pulses of voltage once every 1/2 revolution, there are multiple sets of coils making intermittent contact with the brushes. The diagram shown above is a bit more simplified than what you would see in real life.

The problems involved with making and breaking electrical contact with a moving coil should be obvious (sparking and heat), especially if the shaft of the generator is revolving at high speed. If the atmosphere surrounding the machine contains flammable or explosive vapors, the practical problems of spark-producing brush contacts are even greater. An AC generator (alternator) does not require brushes and commutators to work, and so is immune to these problems experienced by DC generators.

The benefits of AC over DC with regard to generator design is also reflected in electric motors. While DC motors require the use of brushes to make electrical contact with moving coils of wire, AC motors do not. In fact, AC and DC motor designs are very similar to their generator counterparts (identical for the sake of this tutorial), the AC motor being dependent upon the reversing magnetic field produced by alternating current through its stationary coils of wire to rotate the rotating magnet around on its shaft, and the DC motor being dependent on the brush contacts making and breaking connections to reverse current through the rotating coil every 1/2 rotation (180 degrees).

So we know that AC generators and AC motors tend to be simpler than DC generators and DC motors. This relative simplicity translates into greater reliability and lower cost of manufacture. But what else is AC good for? Surely there must be more to it than design details of generators and motors! Indeed there is. There is an effect of electromagnetism known as mutual induction, whereby two or more coils of wire placed so that the changing magnetic field created by one induces a voltage in the other. If we have two mutually inductive coils and we energize one coil with AC, we will create an AC voltage in the other coil. When used as such, this device is known as a transformer:

Fhsst electromag14.png

The fundamental significance of a transformer is its ability to step voltage up or down from the powered coil to the unpowered coil. The AC voltage induced in the unpowered ("secondary") coil is equal to the AC voltage across the powered ("primary") coil multiplied by the ratio of secondary coil turns to primary coil turns. If the secondary coil is powering a load, the current through the secondary coil is just the opposite: primary coil current multiplied by the ratio of primary to secondary turns. This relationship has a very close mechanical analogy, using torque and speed to represent voltage and current, respectively:

Fhsst electromag15.png

If the winding ratio is reversed so that the primary coil has less turns than the secondary coil, the transformer "steps up" the voltage from the source level to a higher level at the load:

Fhsst electromag16.png

The transformer's ability to step AC voltage up or down with ease gives AC an advantage unmatched by DC in the realm of power distribution. When transmitting electrical power over long distances, it is far more efficient to do so with stepped-up voltages and stepped-down currents (smaller-diameter wire with less resistive power losses), then step the voltage back down and the current back up for industry, business, or consumer use use.

Fhsst electromag17.png

Transformer technology has made long-range electric power distribution practical. Without the ability to efficiently step voltage up and down, it would be cost-prohibitive to construct power systems for anything but close-range (within a few miles at most) use.

As useful as transformers are, they only work with AC, not DC. Because the phenomenon of mutual inductance relies on changing magnetic fields, and direct current (DC) can only produce steady magnetic fields, transformers simply will not work with direct current. Of course, direct current may be interrupted (pulsed) through the primary winding of a transformer to create a changing magnetic field (as is done in automotive ignition systems to produce high-voltage spark plug power from a low-voltage DC battery), but pulsed DC is not that different from AC. Perhaps more than any other reason, this is why AC finds such widespread application in power systems.

If we were to follow the changing voltage produced by a coil in an alternator from any point on the sine wave graph to that point when the wave shape begins to repeat itself, we would have marked exactly one cycle of that wave. This is most easily shown by spanning the distance between identical peaks, but may be measured between any corresponding points on the graph. The degree marks on the horizontal axis of the graph represent the domain of the trigonometric sine function, and also the angular position of our simple two-pole alternator shaft as it rotates:

Fhsst electromag18.png

Since the horizontal axis of this graph can mark the passage of time as well as shaft position in degrees, the dimension marked for one cycle is often measured in a unit of time, most often seconds or fractions of a second. When expressed as a measurement, this is often called the period of a wave. The period of a wave in degrees is always 360, but the amount of time one period occupies depends on the rate voltage oscillates back and forth.

A more popular measure for describing the alternating rate of an AC voltage or current wave than period is the rate of that back-and-forth oscillation. This is called frequency. The modern unit for frequency is the hertz (abbreviated Hz), which represents the number of wave cycles completed during one second of time. In the United States of America, the standard power-line frequency is 60 Hz, meaning that the AC voltage oscillates at a rate of 60 complete back-and-forth cycles every second. In Europe, where the power system frequency is 50 Hz, the AC voltage only completes 50 cycles every second. A radio station transmitter broadcasting at a frequency of 100 MHz generates an AC voltage oscillating at a rate of 100 million cycles every second.

Period and frequency are mathematical reciprocals of one another. That is to say, if a wave has a period of 10 seconds, its frequency will be 0.1 Hz, or 1/10 of a cycle per second:

An instrument called an oscilloscope is used to display a changing voltage over time on a graphical screen. You may be familiar with the appearance of an ECG or EKG (electrocardiograph) machine, used by physicians to graph the oscillations of a patient's heart over time. The ECG is a special-purpose oscilloscope expressly designed for medical use. General-purpose oscilloscopes have the ability to display voltage from virtually any voltage source, plotted as a graph with time as the independent variable. The relationship between period and frequency is very useful to know when displaying an AC voltage or current waveform on an oscilloscope screen. By measuring the period of the wave (in seconds) on the horizontal axis of the oscilloscope screen and reciprocating that time value, you can determine the frequency in hertz.

Fhsst electromag19.png

Voltage and current are by no means the only physical variables subject to variation over time. Much more common to our everyday experience is sound, which is nothing more than the alternating compression and decompression (pressure waves) of air molecules, interpreted by our ears as a physical sensation. Because alternating current is a wave phenomenon, it shares many of the properties of other wave phenomena, like sound. For this reason, sound (especially structured music) provides an excellent analogy for relating AC concepts.

In musical terms, frequency is equivalent to pitch. Low-pitch notes such as those produced by a tuba or bassoon consist of air molecule vibrations that are relatively slow (low frequency). High-pitch notes such as those produced by a flute or whistle consist of the same type of vibrations in the air, only vibrating at a much faster rate (higher frequency). Here is a table showing the actual frequencies for a range of common musical notes:

Fhsst electromag20.png

Astute observers will notice that all notes on the table bearing the same letter designation are related by a frequency ratio of 2:1. For example, the first frequency shown (designated with the letter "A") is 220 Hz. The next highest "A" note has a frequency of 440 Hz - exactly twice as many sound wave cycles per second. The same 2:1 ratio holds true for the first A sharp (233.08 Hz) and the next A sharp (466.16 Hz), and for all note pairs found in the table.

Audibly, two notes whose frequencies are exactly double each other sound remarkably similar. This similarity in sound is musically recognized, the shortest span on a musical scale separating such note pairs being called an octave. Following this rule, the next highest "A" note (one octave above 440 Hz) will be 880 Hz, the next lowest "A" (one octave below 220 Hz) will be 110 Hz. A view of a piano keyboard helps to put this scale into perspective:

Fhsst electromag21.png

As you can see, one octave is equal to eight white keys' worth of distance on a piano keyboard. The familiar musical mnemonic (doe-ray-mee-fah-so-lah-tee-doe) - yes, the same pattern immortalized in the whimsical Rodgers and Hammerstein song sung in The Sound of Music - covers one octave from C to C.

While electromechanical alternators and many other physical phenomena naturally produce sine waves, this is not the only kind of alternating wave in existence. Other "waveforms" of AC are commonly produced within electronic circuitry. Here are but a few sample waveforms and their common designations:

Fhsst electromag22.png

These waveforms are by no means the only kinds of waveforms in existence. They're simply a few that are common enough to have been given distinct names. Even in circuits that are supposed to manifest "pure" sine, square, triangle, or sawtooth voltage/current waveforms, the real-life result is often a distorted version of the intended waveshape. Some waveforms are so complex that they defy classification as a particular "type" (including waveforms associated with many kinds of musical instruments). Generally speaking, any waveshape bearing close resemblance to a perfect sine wave is termed sinusoidal, anything different being labeled as non-sinusoidal. Being that the waveform of an AC voltage or current is crucial to its impact in a circuit, we need to be aware of the fact that AC waves come in a variety of shapes.