Alternating current

 

 

Alternating current (AC) is an electric current which periodically reverses direction, in contrast to direct current (DC) which flows only in one direction. Alternating current is the form in which electric power is delivered to businesses and residences, and it is the form of electrical energy that consumers typically use when they plug kitchen appliances, televisions, fans and electric lamps into a wall socket. A common source of DC power is a battery cell in a flashlight. The abbreviations AC and DC are often used to mean simply alternating and direct, as when they modify current or voltage.
High voltages have disadvantages, such as the increased insulation required, and generally increased difficulty in their safe handling. In a power plant, energy 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 somewhat 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. The voltage delivered to equipment such as lighting and motor loads is standardized, with an allowable range of voltage over which equipment is expected to operate. Standard power utilization voltages and percentage tolerance vary in the different mains power systems found in the world. High-voltage direct-current (HVDC) electric power transmission systems have become more viable as technology has provided efficient means of changing the voltage of DC power. Transmission with high voltage direct current was not feasible in the early days of electric power transmission, as there was then no economically viable way to step down the voltage of DC for end user applications such as lighting incandescent bulbs.
A third wire, called the bond (or earth) wire, is often connected between non-current-carrying metal enclosures and earth ground. This conductor provides protection from electric shock due to accidental contact of circuit conductors with the metal chassis of portable appliances and tools. Bonding all non-current-carrying metal parts into one complete system ensures there is always a low electrical impedance path to ground sufficient to carry any fault current for as long as it takes for the system to clear the fault. This low impedance path allows the maximum amount of fault current, causing the overcurrent protection device (breakers, fuses) to trip or burn out as quickly as possible, bringing the electrical system to a safe state. All bond wires are bonded to ground at the main service panel, as is the neutral/identified conductor if present.
For low to medium frequencies, conductors can be divided into stranded wires, each insulated from one another, with the relative positions of individual strands specially arranged 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 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 lower 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.
Coaxial cables are commonly used at audio frequencies and above for convenience. A coaxial cable has a conductive wire inside a conductive tube, separated by a dielectric layer. The current flowing on the surface of the inner conductor is equal and opposite to the current flowing on the inner surface of the outer tube. The electromagnetic field is thus completely contained within the tube, and (ideally) no energy is lost to radiation or coupling outside the tube. Coaxial cables have acceptably small losses for frequencies up to about 5 GHz. For microwave frequencies greater than 5 GHz, the losses (due mainly to the electrical resistance of the central conductor) become too large, making waveguides a more efficient medium for transmitting energy. Coaxial cables with an air rather than solid dielectric are preferred as they transmit power with lower loss.
Alternating current is used to transmit information, as in the cases of telephone and cable television. Information signals are carried over a wide range of AC frequencies. POTS telephone signals have a frequency of about 3 kHz, close to the baseband audio frequency. Cable television and other cable-transmitted information currents may alternate at frequencies of tens to thousands of megahertz. These frequencies are similar to the electromagnetic wave frequencies often used to transmit the same types of information over the air.
The AC power systems was developed and adopted rapidly after 1886 due to its ability to distribute electricity efficiently over long distances, overcoming the limitations of the direct current system. In 1886, the ZBD engineers designed the world's first power station that used AC generators to power a parallel-connected common electrical network, the steam-powered Rome-Cerchi power plant. The reliability of the AC technology received impetus after the Ganz Works electrified a large European metropolis: Rome in 1886.