Posts Tagged ‘subway car’

Electrocution by Microwave Oven

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

     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. 


Regenerative Brakes

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

     Have you ever been stranded on a subway car?  The lights flickered wildly, then the odd humming sounds all came to an abrupt stop, and you sat there exchanging uncomfortable glances with your fellow passengers?  “Hey, get this thing going!  I’ve got an appointment to make!” someone shouts at the driver, sequestered in his cab.  The trouble is, he, like the rest of the passengers, is equally helpless in this situation.

     You see, streetcars, subway cars, and light rail cars are all forms of electric railway cars, and when their source of electricity goes out, so do they.  They’re similar to the diesel-electric locomotive we looked at last week because they use electric traction motors for propulsion, meaning to move forward.  But their difference lies in the fact that electric rail cars don’t carry their own source of power and are entirely reliant on an external source, an electrical substation.  See Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 – Electric Railway Car Propulsion System

     This substation performs the task of taking the power provided by an electric utility power plant and converting it into a form of power that the electric rail car can use to operate its traction motors.   The two are connected via a trolley wire and the two rails that the car runs on.  The railway car has a spring-loaded arm called a pantograph on its roof that touches the trolley wire, allowing electrical current to flow into a speed control system housed under the car.  This speed control system performs the task of varying the flow of electrical current to the traction motors, enabling the car to move, before it eventually exits the motor through its wheels, then back to the substation where it originated, thus completing an electrical circuit. 

     Many newer electric railway cars couple a regenerative braking system with a mechanical one.  Their operation is similar in nature to a dynamic braking system where the traction motors are turned into generators.  The difference is that with regenerative braking systems the current from the traction motors is sent to the trolley wire through the pantograph as shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2 – An Electric Railway Car Using Regenerative Brakes

     This diagram shows the railcar generating electricity, but it may not be so obvious how its motion is made to slow down, after all, we see no resistor grids like we did in last week’s illustration of a dynamic braking system.  So how does it stop?  The trick here is that there are other cars running on the rail line at the same time which are using electrical current to move forward.   So what does this have to do with stopping it you ask?  Let’s take a look at Figure 3 for clarification.


Figure 3 – How Regenerative Brakes Help Save Power

     In this illustration we see that as Car A goes downhill and the operator applies the brakes, the regenerative brake will be caused to start pumping electrical current into the trolley wire.  Now, if Car B is on the same rail line going up the other side of the hill, it will need power to climb that hill, and it will need to draw that power from the trolley wire by way of its pantograph.  But instead of drawing all its electrical current from the substation, Car B will first draw off the current produced by nearby Car A, and only then will it draw the remainder of its power requirements from the substation. 

     During this braking process the kinetic energy in Car A is converted into electrical energy by its traction motors.  Then Car B uses its own traction motors to convert the electrical energy drawn from Car A into mechanical energy, enabling it to climb the hill.  Car B has effectively robbed Car A of its energy, so Car A slows down.   As we discovered last week during our discussion of dynamic brakes, regenerative brakes become ineffective below a certain minimum speed.  This is the reason that electric rail cars need mechanical brakes to complete the job of stopping. 

     We see that the regenerative braking process is actually quite green.  It allows for electrical energy that would normally be wasted as heat energy escaping into the atmosphere to be converted into useful energy, taking a significant chunk out of the demand for new energy off of substations.  It also helps the electric railway to save money when it comes time to paying the electric bills.

You may have noticed a copyright symbol and my name included in this week’s illustrations.  That’s because it has recently come to my attention that many of my readers are unaware that I am the CAD (Computer Aided Design) artist who creates the illustrations featured in most of my blogs.  CAD is a useful tool in explaining difficult technical subject matter, which is precisely why I use it so often.  Next week we’ll explore in more depth the benefits of using this tool.