| The world of electricity is full of mysteries and often unanticipated outcomes, and if you’ve been reading along with my blog series you have been able to appreciate and come to some understanding of a fair number of them. This week’s installment will be no exception.
Last week we looked briefly at the high voltage circuit within a microwave oven. We discovered that the circuit contains a transformer that raises 120 volts alternating current (AC) to a much higher voltage, around 4000 volts AC. The circuit then transforms the AC into direct current (DC) with the help of electronic components known as a diode and capacitor. Let’s take a closer look at how the diode and capacitor work together to make AC into DC.
Let’s follow an AC wave with the aid of a device called an oscilloscope. An oscilloscope takes in an electronic signal, measures it, graphs it, and shows it on a display screen so you can see how the signal changes over time. An AC wave is shown in Figure 1 as it would appear on an oscilloscope.
Figure 1 – Alternating Current Wave
You can see that each wave cycle starts with a zero value, climbs to a positive maximum value, then back to zero, and finally back down to a maximum negative value. The current keeps alternating between positive and negative polarity, hence the name “alternating current.”
Within the microwave oven’s high voltage circuitry the transformer does the job of changing, or transforming if you will, 120 volts AC into 4000 volts AC. This high voltage is needed to make electrons leave the cathode in the magnetron and move them towards the anode to generate microwaves.
But we’re not done with the transformation process yet. The magnetron requires DC to operate, not AC. DC current remains constant over time, maintaining a consistent positive value as shown in Figure 2. It is this type of consistency that the magnetron needs to operate.
Figure 2 – Direct Current
The microwave’s diode and capacitor work together to convert the 4000 volts AC into something which resembles 4000 volts DC. First the diode acts like a one-way valve, passing the flow of positive electric current and blocking the flow of negative current. It effectively chops off the negative part of the AC wave, leaving only positive peaks, as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3 – The Diode Chops Off The Negative Part of the AC Wave
Between the peaks are gaps where there is zero current, and this is when the capacitor comes into play. Capacitors are similar to batteries because they can be charged with electrical energy and then discharge that energy when needed. Unlike a battery, the capacitor charges and discharges very quickly, within a fraction of a second.
Within the circuitry of a microwave oven the capacitor charges up at the top of each peak in Figure 3, then, when the current drops to zero inside the gaps the capacitor comes into play, discharging its electrical energy into the high voltage circuit. The result is an elimination of the zero current gaps. The capacitor acts as a reserve energy supply to fill in the gaps between the peaks and keep current continually flowing to the magnetron. We have now witnessed a mock DC current situation being created, and the result is shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4 – The Capacitor Discharges to Fill In The Gaps Between Peaks
The output of this approximated DC current looks like a sawtooth pattern instead of the straight line of a true DC current shown in Figure 2. This ripple pattern is evidence of the “hoax” that has been played with the AC current. The net result is that the modified AC current, thanks to the introduction of the diode and energy storing capacitor, has made an effective enough approximation of DC current to allow our magnetron to get to work jostling electrons loose from the cathode and putting our microwave oven into action.
You now have a basic understanding of how to turn AC into an effective approximation of DC current. Next week we’ll find out how this high voltage circuit can prove to be lethal, even when the microwave oven is unplugged.