| Through the ages it’s been common practice to name important discoveries after those who discovered them. For example, James Watt was a mechanical engineer who improved the steam engine by finding a solution to the problem of steam condensing into water inside the engine, a phenomenon which resulted in the engine cooling and reducing its efficiency. Thus it was fitting that a metric unit of power, the watt, was named in his honor. Today we’ll become acquainted with the man behind the naming of the Zener diode, Clarence Zener, and take a look at his contributions with regard to the function of this electrical component.
Last time we began our discussion on electrical components known as diodes and saw how they’re used on circuit paths to govern the flow of current. The Zener diode is a particular type of diode and a key component in transistorized voltage regulator circuits, as we’ll see later. For now, let’s see how it works. The symbol for the Zener diode is almost identical to that of a standard diode, introduced in my previous blog, but the Zener version has a bent line going through it resembling a distorted letter “z.” See Figure 1.
Electric current flows through the Zener Diode just as it does through a standard diode. But when the current flows in reverse, that’s where the similarity ends. See Figure 2.
When current tries to flow in the reverse direction, the Zener diode acts as an electrical conductor and allows current to pass through it. In other words, it doesn’t block current flow as standard diodes do.
At this point, you may be asking, “What’s so special about that?” Perhaps you’ve made the connection that it behaves no differently than a metal wire. But that isn’t entirely correct.
You see, when current passes in the reverse direction through the Zener diode, it maintains a constant voltage. This is called the Zener Voltage and is denoted as VZener. The significance here is that within the circuit, any electronic component connected across the leads of a Zener diode will be supplied with a constant, unchanging voltage. Thus the Zener diode works as a voltage regulator, enabling devices connected to it to have smooth, uninterrupted operation at a constant voltage. It should be noted that this phenomenon only happens when the current flowing through the Zener diode is flowing in reverse.
Next time we’ll look at a basic regulated power supply circuit to see how a Zener diode is incorporated in order to maintain a consistent output voltage.
Posts Tagged ‘Watt’
| Ever take a peek inside the toaster while you’re waiting for the toast to pop up? If so, you would have noticed a bright orange glow. That glow is produced when the toasting wires heat up, which in turn creates a nice crusty surface on your bread or waffle. It’s the same phenomenon as when the filament inside an incandescent bulb glows. The light and heat produced in both these cases are the result of the Joule, pronounced “jewel,” effect at work.
To understand Joule heating, let’s first refresh our memories as to electrical current resistance. We learned previously that wire is not a perfect conductor, and as such resistance to flow is encountered. This resistance causes power to be lost along the length of wire, in accordance with this equation:
Power Loss = I2 × R
Where I is the electric current flowing through a wire, and R is the total electrical resistance of the wire. The power loss is measured in units of Joules per second, otherwise known as watts, “watt” denoting a metric unit of power. It is named after the famed Scottish mechanical engineer, James Watt, who is responsible for inventing the modern steam engine. A Joule is a metric unit of heat energy, named after the English scientist James Prescott Joule. He was a pioneer in the field of thermodynamics, a branch of physics concerned with the relationships between different forms of energy.
Anyway, to see how the equation works, let’s look at an example. Suppose we have 12 feet of 12 AWG copper wire. We are using it to feed power to an appliance that draws 10 amperes of electric current. Going to our handy engineering reference book, we find that the 12 AWG wire has an electrical resistance of 0.001588 ohms per foot, “ohm” being a unit of electrical resistance. Plugging in the numbers, our equation for total electrical resistance becomes:
R = (0.001588 ohms per foot) × 12 feet = 0.01905 ohms
And we can now calculate power loss as follows:
Power = I2 × R = (10 amperes)2 × (0.01905 ohms) = 1.905 watts
Instead of using a 12 AWG wire, let’s use a smaller diameter wire, say, 26 AWG. Our engineering reference book says that 26 AWG wire has an electrical resistance of 0.0418 ohms per foot. So let’s see how this changes the power loss:
R = (0.0418 ohms per foot) × 12 feet = 0.5016 ohms
Power = I2 × R = (10 amperes)2 × (0.5016 ohms) = 50.16 watts
This explains why appliances like space heaters and window unit air conditioners have short, thick power cords. They draw a lot of current when they operate, and a short power cord, precisely because it is short, poses less electrical resistance than a long cord. A thicker cord also helps reduce resistance to power flow. The result is a large amount of current flowing through a superhighway of wire, the wide berth reducing both the amount of power loss and the probability of dangerous Joule heating effect from taking place.
Our example shows that the electric current flowing through the 12 AWG wire loses 1.905 watts of power due to the inconsistencies within the wire, and this in turn causes the wire to heat up. This is Joule heating at work. Joule heating of 50.16 watts in the thinner 26 AWG wire can lead to serious trouble.
When using a power cord, heat moves from the copper wire within it, whose job it is to conduct electricity, and beyond, on to the electrical insulation that surrounds it. There the heat is not trapped, but escapes into the environment surrounding the cord. If the wire has low internal resistance and the amount of current flowing through it is within limits which are deemed to be acceptable, then Joule heating can be safely dissipated and the wire remains cool. But if the current goes beyond the safe limit, as specified in the American Wire Gauge (AWG) table for that type of wire, then overheating can be the result. The electrical insulation may start to melt and burn, and the local fire department may then become involved.
That’s it for wire sizing and electric current. Next time we’ll slip back into the mechanical world and explore a new topic: the principles of ventilation.