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Alternating Current

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City lights viewed in a motion blurred exposure. The AC blinking causes the lines to be dotted rather than constant.
City lights viewed in a motion blurred exposure. The AC blinking causes the lines to be dotted rather than constant.

An alternating current (AC) is an electrical current whose magnitude and direction vary cyclically, as opposed to direct current, whose direction remains constant. The usual waveform of an AC power circuit is a sine wave, as this results in the most efficient transmission of energy. However in certain applications different waveforms are used, such as triangular or square waves.

Used generically, AC refers to the form in which electricity is delivered to businesses and residences. However, audio and radio signals carried on electrical wire are also examples of alternating current. In these applications, an important goal is often the recovery of information encoded (or modulated) onto the AC signal.



William Stanley designed one of the first practical devices to transfer AC power efficiently between isolated circuits. Using pairs of coils wound on a common iron core, his design, called an induction coil, was an early precursor of the modern transformer. The system used today was devised by many contributors including Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, Lucien Gaulard, John Gibbs, and Oliver Shallenger from 1881 to 1889. These systems overcame the limitations imposed by using direct current, as found in the system that Thomas Edison first used to distribute electricity commercially.

The first long-distance transmission of alternating current took place in 1891 near Telluride, Colorado, followed a few months later in Germany. Thomas Edison strongly advocated the use of direct current (DC), having many patents in that technology, but eventually alternating current came into general use (see War of Currents). And through the use of alternating current, Charles Proteus Steinmetz of General Electric was able to solve many of the problems associated with electricity generation and transmission.

Transmission, distribution, and domestic power supply

Main article: Electricity distribution

AC voltage can be stepped up or down by a transformer to a different voltage. Modern High-voltage, direct current electric power transmission systems contrast with the more common alternating-current systems as a means for the bulk transmission of electrical power over long distances. However, these tend to be more expensive and less efficient than transformers, and did not exist when Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla were designing their power systems.

Use of a higher voltage leads to more efficient transmission of power. The power losses in a conductor are a product of the square of the current and the resistance of the conductor, described by the formula P = I2R. This means that when transmitting a fixed power on a given wire, if the current is doubled, the power loss will be four times greater. Since the power transmitted is equal to the product of the current, the voltage and the cosine of the phase difference φ (P = IVcosφ), the same amount of power can be transmitted with a lower current by increasing the voltage. Therefore it is advantageous when transmitting large amounts of power to distribute the power with high voltages (often hundreds of kilovolts). However, high voltages also have disadvantages, the main ones being the increased insulation required, and generally increased difficulty in their safe handling. In a power plant, power is generated at a convenient voltage for the design of a generator, and then stepped up to a high voltage for transmission. Near the loads, the transmission voltage is stepped down to the voltages used by equipment. Consumer voltages vary depending on the country and size of load, but generally motors and lighting are built to use up to a few hundred volts between phases.

Three-phase electrical generation is very common. Three separate coils in the generator stator are physically offset by an angle of 120° to each other. Three current waveforms are produced that are equal in magnitude and 120° out of phase to each other.

If the load on a three-phase system is balanced equally between the phases, no current flows through the neutral point. Even in the worst-case unbalanced (linear) load, the neutral current will not exceed the highest of the phase currents. For three-phase at low (normal mains) voltages a four-wire system is normally used. When stepping down three-phase, a transformer with a Delta primary and a Star secondary is often used so there is no need for a neutral on the supply side.

For smaller customers (just how small varies by country and age of the installation) only a single phase and the neutral or two phases and the neutral are taken to the property. For larger installations all three phases and the neutral are taken to the main distribution panel. From the three-phase main panel, both single and three-phase circuits may lead off.

Three-wire single phase systems, with a single centre-tapped transformer giving two live conductors, is a common distribution scheme for residential and small commercial buildings in North America. A similar method is used for a different reason on construction sites in the UK. Small power tools and lighting are supposed to be supplied by a local center-tapped transformer with a voltage of 55V between each power conductor and the earth. This significantly reduces the risk of electric shock in the event that one of the live conductors becomes exposed through an equipment fault whilst still allowing a reasonable voltage for running the tools.

A third wire is often connected between non-current carrying metal enclosures and earth ground. This conductor provides protection from electrical shock due to accidental contact of circuit conductors with the case of portable appliances and tools.

AC power supply frequencies

The frequency of the electrical system varies by country; most electric power is generated at either 50 or 60 Hz. See List of countries with mains power plugs, voltages and frequencies. Some countries have a mixture of 50 Hz and 60 Hz supplies.

Very early AC generating schemes used arbitrary frequencies based on convenience for steam engine, water turbine and generator design, since frequency was not critical for incandescent lighting loads. Frequencies between 16 2/3 Hz and 133 Hz were used on different systems, with lower frequencies favoured where loads were primarily composed of motors, and higher frequencies preferred to reduce lighting flicker. For example, the city of Coventry, England, in 1895 had a unique 87 Hz single-phase distribution system that was in use until 1906. Once induction motors became common, it was important to standardize frequency for compatibility with the customer's equipment. Standardizing on one frequency also, later, allowed interconnection of generating plants on a grid for economy and security of operation.

It is generally accepted that Nikola Tesla chose 60 hertz as the lowest frequency that would not cause street lighting to flicker visibly. The origin of the 50 hertz frequency used in other parts of the world is open to debate but seems likely to be a rounding off of 60 Hz to the 1-2-5-10 structure, called a set of preferred numbers, popular with metric standards.

Other frequencies were somewhat common in the first half of the 20th century, and remain in use in isolated cases today, often tied to the 60 Hz system via a rotary converter or static inverter frequency changer. 25 Hz power was used in Ontario, Quebec, the northern USA, and for railway electrification. In the 1950s, much of this electrical system, from the generators right through to household appliances, was converted and standardised to 60 Hz. Some 25 Hz generators still exist at the Beck 1 and Rankine generating stations near Niagara Falls to provide power for large industrial customers who did not want to replace existing equipment; and some 25 Hz motors exist in New Orleans' floodwater pumps [1].

A low frequency eases the design of low speed electric motors, particularly for hoisting, crushing and rolling applications, and commutator-type traction motors for applications such as railways, but also causes a noticeable flicker in incandescent lighting and objectionable flicker of fluorescent lamps. 16.7 Hz power (approx. 1/3 of the mains frequency) is still used in some European rail systems, such as in Austria, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

Off-shore, textile industry, marine, computer mainframe, aircraft, and spacecraft applications sometimes use 400 Hz, for benefits of reduced weight of apparatus or higher motor speeds.

AC-powered appliances can give off a characteristic hum at the multiples of the frequencies of AC power that they use. Most countries have chosen their television standard to approximate their mains supply frequency. This helps prevent powerline hum and magnetic interference from causing visible beat frequencies in the displayed picture. Unless specified by the manufacturer to operate on either 50 or 60 Hz, appliances may not operate efficiently or even safely if used on other than the intended supply frequency.

Effects at high frequencies

A direct, constant, current flows uniformly throughout the cross-section of the (uniform) wire that carries it. With alternating current of any frequency, the current is forced towards the outer surface of the wire, and away from the center. This is due to the fact that an electric charge which accelerates (as is the case of an alternating current) radiates electromagnetic waves, and materials of high conductivity (the metal which makes up the wire) do not allow propagation of electromagnetic waves. This phenomenon is called skin effect.

At very high frequencies the current no longer flows in the wire, but effectively flows on the surface of the wire, within a thickness of a few skin depths. The skin depth is the thickness at which the current density is reduced by 63%. Even at relatively low power frequencies (50-60 Hz), non-uniform distribution of current still occurs in sufficiently thick conductors. For example, the skin depth of a copper conductor is approximately 8.57mm at 60 Hz, so high current conductors are usually hollow to reduce their mass and cost.

Since the current tends to flow in the periphery of conductors, the effective cross-section of the conductor is reduced. This increases the effective AC resistance of the conductor, since resistance is inversely proportional to cross-sectional area actually used. The AC resistance often is many times higher than the DC resistance, causing a much higher energy loss due to ohmic heating (also called I2R loss).

Techniques for reducing AC resistance

For low to medium frequencies, conductors can be divided into stranded wires, each insulated from one other, and the individual strands specially arranged to change their relative position within the conductor bundle. Wire constructed using this technique is called Litz wire. This measure helps to partially mitigate skin effect by forcing more equal current flow throughout the total cross section of the stranded conductors. Litz wire is used for making high Q inductors, reducing losses in flexible conductors carrying very high currents at power frequencies, and in the windings of devices carrying higher radio frequency current (up to hundreds of kilohertz), such as switch-mode power supplies and radio frequency transformers.

Techniques for reducing radiation loss

As written above, an alternating current is made of electric charge under periodic acceleration, which causes radiation of electromagnetic waves. Energy that is radiated represents a loss. Depending on the frequency, different techniques are used to minimize the loss due to radiation.

Twisted pairs

At frequencies up to about 1 GHz, wires are paired together in cabling to form a twisted pair in order to reduce losses due to electromagnetic radiation and inductive coupling. A twisted pair must be used with a balanced signalling system, where the two wires carry equal but opposite currents. The result is that each wire in the twisted pair radiates a signal that is effectively cancelled by the other wire, resulting in almost no electromagnetic radiation.

Coax cables

At frequencies above 1 GHz, unshielded wires of practical dimensions lose too much energy to radiation, so coaxial cables or waveguides are used instead. A coaxial cable has a conductive wire inside a conductive tube. The current flowing on the inner conductor is equal and opposite to the current flowing on the inner surface of the outer tube. This causes the electromagnetic field to be completely contained within the tube, and (ideally) no energy is radiated or coupled outside the tube.


Coaxial cables have acceptably small losses for frequencies up to about 20 GHz. For microwave frequencies greater than 20 GHz, dielectric losses (due mainly to the dissipation factor of the dielectric layer which separates the inner wire from the outer tube) become too large, making waveguides a more efficient medium for transmitting energy. With waveguides, the energy is no longer carried by an electric current, but by a guided electromagnetic field. Waveguides have dimensions comparable to the wavelength of the alternating current to be transmitted, so are only feasible at microwave frequencies.

Fiber optics

At frequencies greater than 200 GHz, waveguide dimensions become impractically too small, and the ohmic losses in the waveguide walls become large. Instead, fiber optics, which are a form of dielectric waveguides, can be used. For such frequencies, the concepts of voltages and currents are no longer used.

Mathematics of AC voltages

A sine wave, over one cycle (360°). The dashed line represents the Root Mean Square (RMS) value
A sine wave, over one cycle (360°). The dashed line represents the Root Mean Square (RMS) value

Alternating currents are accompanied by alternating voltages. An AC voltage v can be described mathematically as a function of time by the following equation:

v(t)=A \cdot\sin(\omega t),


A is the amplitude in volts (also called the peak voltage),
ω is the angular frequency in radians per second, and
t is the time in seconds.

Since angular frequency is of more interest to mathematicians than to engineers and technicians, this is commonly rewritten as:

v(t)=A \cdot\sin(2 \pi f t),


f is the frequency in hertz.

The peak-to-peak value of an AC voltage is defined as the difference between its positive peak and its negative peak. Since the maximum value of sin(x) is +1 and the minimum value is −1, an AC voltage swings between +A and −A. The peak-to-peak voltage, written as VP-P, is therefore (+A) − (−A) = 2 × A.

In power distribution, the AC voltage is nearly always given as a root mean square (rms) value, written Vrms. For a sinusoidal voltage:

V_\mathrm{rms}=\frac{A}{\sqrt 2}

Vrms is useful in calculating the power consumed by a load. If a DC voltage of VDC delivers a certain power P into a given load, then an AC voltage of Vrms will deliver the same average power P into the same load if Vrms = VDC. Because of this fact rms is the normal means of measuring voltage in mains (power) systems.

To illustrate these concepts, consider a 240 V AC mains supply. It is so called because its RMS value is (at least nominally) 240 V. This means that it has the same heating effect as 240 V DC. To work out its peak voltage (amplitude), we can modify the above equation to:

A=V_\mathrm{rms} \cdot \sqrt 2

For our 240 V AC, the peak voltage VP or A is therefore 240 V × √2 = 339 V (approx.). The peak-to-peak value VP-P of the 240 V AC mains is even higher: 2 × 240 V × √2 = 679 V (approx.)

Note that non-sinusoidal waveforms have a different relationship between their peak magnitude and effective (RMS) value. This is of practical significance when working with non-linear circuit elements that produce harmonic currents, such as rectifiers.

The European Union (including the UK) has now officially harmonized on a supply of 230 V 50 Hz. However, it made the tolerance bands very wide at ±10%. Some countries actually specify stricter standards than this; for example, the UK specifies 230 V +10% −6%. Most supplies to the old standards therefore conform to the new one and do not need to be changed.

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