| Electrical voltage flow and water flow have a lot in common. They’re both affected by fluctuations in supply, fluctuations which can adversely impact both performance and equipment integrity. Take for example a sprinkler that fails to cover a designated section of lawn due to heavy neighborhood demand. Everybody wants to water on the weekend when it’s been 90 degrees all week, and low water pressure is the result. There are times when it’s hard to get a glass of water. By contrast in the winter months, when water demands tend to be lower, water supplies are plentiful. This scenario of varying water pressure is analogous to what sometimes occurs within electric circuits.
In my previous blog article on wall warts, I described the operation of a simple power supply consisting of a transformer, diode bridge, and capacitor. Together, these components converted 120 volts alternating current (VAC) to 12 volts direct current (VDC). The wall wart power supply is fine for many applications, however it is unregulated, meaning if there are any sudden surges in power, such as spikes or dips caused by lightning strikes or other disturbances on the electric utility system, there could be problems.
Take for example a power supply that is used in conjunction with sensitive digital logic chips, like the one used in my x-ray film processor design shown in my last blog article. These chips are designed to run optimally on a constant voltage, like 5 VDC, and when that doesn’t happen input signals can fail to register with the computer program and cause a variety of problems, such as output signals turning on and off at will. In the film processor the drive motor may start at the wrong time or get stuck in an on modality. If power surges are high enough, microprocessor chips can get damaged, compromising the entire working unit.
The output voltage of an unregulated power supply can also vary in response to power demand, just as when sprinklers don’t have sufficient water flow to cover a section of lawn. Demand for power can change within a circuit when electrical components like relays, lights, and buzzers are turned on and off by digital logic chips.
Next time we’ll take a look at a basic concept of electrical engineering known as “Ohm’s Law” and how it governs the variable output voltage response of unregulated power supplies.
Posts Tagged ‘alternating current’
What would a cop show be without a crime scene, or better yet the obligatory dissection at the morgue? Forensic doctors performing autopsies have become commonplace, the clues they provide indispensable. Forensic engineers such as myself do much of the same thing, working our way backwards through time by dissecting industrial equipment and consumer products left in the wake of fires, injuries, and deaths.
Let’s do some forensic dissecting now to see what’s in a wall wart and how it works. The inside of a basic wall wart is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 - Inside The Wall Wart
You’ll note that a wall wart has four main components: a transformer, diode bridge, capacitor, and a printed circuit board (PCB). The PCB is constructed of plastic resin upon which is mounted copper strips. This makes a rigid platform base upon which electronic components are attached, namely the transformer, diode bridge, and capacitor. These components are soldered to the PCB, tying them together both mechanically and electrically. Now let’s see how the components of the wall wart work together to change the 120 volts coming from your standard wall outlet into the 12 volts needed to power a typical electronic device. We’ll use an instrument known as an oscilloscope to help us visualize what’s going on. See Figure 2.
Figure 2 – The Workings of the Wall Wart Transformer
What is depicted in the graph above is the oscilloscope’s ability to receive an electronic signal, measure it, graph it, and then display it on a screen. This enables us to see how the signal changes over time. At Point A, which represents the wall wart plugged into a wall outlet, the voltage alternates between positive 120 volts and negative 120 volts upon entering the wall wart, which will now act as a transformer.
The wall wart transformer then does as its name suggests, it transforms the 120 volts coming from the outlet into the 12 volts shown at Point B. You will note that this lower voltage also alternates between positive and negative values, just as the original 120 volts emanating from the wall outlet did. In one of my earlier blogs I explained that transformers only work when the electricity passing through them alternates over time. (Click here for a refresher: Transformers ) High voltage alternating electricity in one transformer coil creates magnetic fields that induce alternating electricity at a different voltage in a second transformer coil. So when you put alternating voltage into the transformer, you get alternating voltage out. But that’s not the end of the story. Many electronic devices operate on voltage that doesn’t alternate. What then? Will our handy wall wart still be able to bridge the electrical gap to fill our needs?
Next time we’ll see how the diode bridge and capacitor come into play to deal with the alternating voltage from the transformer in a manner eerily similar to a microwave oven’s high voltage circuit.
You might have had warts on your skin. They’re formed by viruses making a new home. If you’ve ever had one, you probably didn’t like it and found it hard to get rid of.
Walls often have warts, too, although you probably didn’t identify them as such. “Wall Wart” is engineering talk for the black plastic protrusions you often find attached to the exterior of a wall outlet in modern homes. If you call them anything at all, it’s most likely “AC power adapters.” A typical wall wart is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 – A Typical Wall Wart
Wall warts provide a handy, portable and easy to use conversionary power source for small electronic devices, including lamps, small appliances, and various modern day electronics. If you’re like me, you have lots of them scattered on the walls of your home and office. Most people come to use them when a need arises, say you bought a scanner for your computer. Beyond that they’re usually not given much thought, but today we’re going to explore them a bit.
Suppose you’re an engineer and you’ve been asked to design an electronic product for household use. The product only requires 12 volts of direct current (DC) to operate, but you know that the typical home is wired to supply 120 volts of alternating current (AC). What can be done to rectify the discrepancy? Well, there are two distinct choices.
One of the choices is to design electronic circuitry capable of converting 120 volts AC into 12 volts DC, then place it inside the product. But is this the best choice? Not really. It takes time to design custom circuitry, and doing so will add substantially to the design time and final cost of the product. This is especially true if the circuitry is produced in small quantities. Besides, if the electronic product is small, there may not be enough room inside to accommodate this type of circuitry.
The smarter choice would be to buy a wall wart from another company that specializes in manufacturing them. They’re produced in huge quantities, so the cost is low. They also come in standard voltages, like 12 volts DC. And because the wall wart is external to the product housing, space inside is no longer a concern. It couldn’t be any easier or cost effective. Just plug the wall wart into your home electrical outlet, then plug in the product’s 12 volt DC cord. Done!
Next time we’ll take a look at what’s going on inside your basic wall wart to see how it works.
Ever been jolted with electric current? Like the time you’d just gotten out of the shower and went to plug in a lamp with damp hands? So what do you think the voltage was that caused that nasty biting feeling that resulted from your momentary lapse in good judgment?
Once, while operating a subway car at a railroad museum at which I was a member, I was inadvertently “electrocuted.” I went to turn on the lights inside the car, and unbeknownst to me the light switch was faulty. When I touched it I instantly became connected to the car’s 600 volt lighting circuit. With just a split second of contact the current passed through the tip of my right index finger, along my right arm, down the right side of my body, and out the tip of my big toe, finally exiting into the metal railcar’s body. The current actually burned a hole where it had exited through my boot. The experience was both frightening and painful, but fortunately did not result in any real injury. I was lucky that the current had bypassed my heart, because if it hadn’t, I might not be alive today.
That was 600 volts. Now imagine being jolted by the 4000 volts present in a microwave oven’s internal high voltage circuitry.
Last week we discovered how the high voltage circuit in a microwave oven converts the ordinary, everyday 120 volts alternating current (AC) present in our homes into a much higher voltage approximating direct current (DC). This is done by an internal component known as the capacitor. The capacitor is capable of storing large amounts of electrical energy, and this can result in microwave ovens presenting a danger even when unplugged.
A microwave oven capacitor is shown in Figure 1. If you happened to touch its wire terminals while it’s still charged, its power can rapidly discharge high voltage electrical current throughout your body. The electrical current from the capacitor can even stop your heart from beating, and this is exactly what caused the demise of a person featured on a soon to be released Discovery Channel program, Curious and Unusual Deaths. While being interviewed as an expert for the program, I was asked to explain this rather unique phenomenon of latent stored energy, and how it may present a threat.
Figure 1 – A Microwave Oven Capacitor
Remember, a microwave oven capacitor can remain charged with dangerous electrical energy for hours, even days, after the microwave oven plug is pulled from the wall outlet. The bottom line here is that you should not attempt to fix your microwave oven, unless you are trained and certified to do so.
Next week we’ll switch to a different topic, namely an electrical device known as a “wall wart.” That’s the black plastic adapter you plug into electrical outlets to power your cell phones, laptops, and other small electronics.
| 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.
| My mom was a female do-it-yourselfer. Toaster on the blink? Garbage disposal grind to a halt? She’d take them apart and start investigating why. Putting safety first, she always pulled the plug on electrical appliances before working on them. Little did she know that this safety precaution would not be enough in the case of a microwave oven. Let’s see how even an unplugged microwave can prove to be a lethal weapon and, yes, we’re going to have to get technical.
Last week we talked about the magnetron and how it needs thousands of volts to operate. To get this high of a voltage out of a 120 volt wall outlet–the voltage that most kitchen outlets provide–the microwave oven is equipped with electrical circuitry containing three important components: a transformer, a diode, and a capacitor, and just like the third rail of an electric railway system these items are to be avoided. If you decide to take your microwave oven apart and you come into contact with high voltage that is still present, you run the risk of injury or even death. But how can high voltage be present when it’s unplugged? Read on.
First we need to understand how the 120 volts emitting from your wall outlet becomes the 4000 volts required to power a microwave’s magnetron. This change takes place thanks to a near magical act performed by AC, or alternating current. In the case of our microwave components, specifically its diode and capacitor, AC is made to effectively mimic the power of DC, or direct current, the type of current a magnetron needs. This transformation is made possible through the storage of electrical energy within the microwave’s capacitor.
Next week we’ll examine in detail how this transformation from AC to DC current takes place, as seen through a device called an oscilloscope.
| Aside from the magical manifestation of innumerable top hats and replicate bodies that the movie The Prestige boasts is possible, there are many other fascinating applications of electricity, as we’ll see today.
Last time we learned how George Westinghouse’s chief engineer, William Stanley, developed the first practical transformer for electric utility use. Now let’s see how it works, as illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1 – The Basic Electrical Transformer
What we have here is an alternating current (AC) power source. And much like an electrical generator in a utility power plant, it is connected via power lines to the primary coil wires of a transformer, such as the one which feeds power to your house. The voltage applied by the source, that is, the power plant, to the primary coil is known as VP, and the electrical current flowing through the primary coil is referred to as IP.
As we learned last week, the continually varying electrical current flowing through the coil creates lines of magnetic flux, which also continually vary. In our diagram the lines of flux flow around the core of the transformer. The magnetic flux present in the core then induces AC voltage, or VS, and current, or IS, to the secondary coil when its wires are connected to something requiring an electrical load to operate. Some examples would be light bulbs, TV’s, and most appliances found in the average home.
As was mentioned last week, the number of wire turns, or loops, in the secondary coil as compared to the primary coil determine how the transformer will change the voltage that is applied to it. An example of this phenomenon can be observed in the power lines supplying electricity to our homes. Voltage from power plants is too high to be introduced into our homes, so transformers convert it to a lower voltage, one which can be used by the myriad of electrical devices we couldn’t live without.
To get an idea of how this voltage changing works, let’s consider Figure 2.
Figure 2 – Basic Transformer Example
We can see that the primary coil has 17 turns of wire and the secondary coil has 8. For purposes of our example and to keep the numbers workable, let’s arbitrarily say that VP = 5 volts AC. By the way, the power initially coming into the transformer feeding your home is typically measured in the thousands of volts.
Now it’s time to do some math. Based on this input voltage and the number of wire turns in each coil, what would the voltage be on the secondary coil? As William Stanley discovered, it’s a matter of ratios and algebra, and it works according to this formula:
NP ÷ NS = VP ÷ VS
Here NP and NS are the number of turns of wire in the primary and secondary coils, respectively. So plugging in the numbers we get:
17 turns ÷ 8 turns = 5 volts ÷ VS
[(8 turns ÷ 17 turns) x 5 volts] = VS = 2.3 volts
This tells us that the transformer in our example reduces, or “steps down” 5 volts AC to just under half the voltage. So the transformer changed a higher voltage to a lower voltage. By the same token, a large utility transformer can be used to reduce transmission line voltage to one which can be used safely within our homes.
Like magic, this mechanism also works in reverse. For example, you can apply 2.3volts AC to the 8 turn coil and you will get 5 volts AC out of the 17 turn coil, resulting in a “stepping up” of voltage.
But wait a minute. How can you possibly get more voltage out than you put in? Next time we’ll find out.