Posts Tagged ‘alternating voltage’

Inside The Wall Wart

Monday, September 5th, 2011

     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.

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