What is alternating current (AC)?


Most students of electricity begin their study with what is known as direct current (DC), which is electricity flowing in a constant direction, and/or possessing a voltage with constant polarity. DC is the kind of electricity made by a battery (with definite positive and negative terminals), or the kind of charge generated by rubbing certain types of materials against each other.

As useful and as easy to understand as DC is, it is not the only “kind” of electricity in use. Certain sources of electricity (most notably, rotary electro-mechanical generators) naturally produce voltages alternating in polarity, reversing positive and negative over time. Either as a voltage switching polarity or as a current switching direction back and forth, this “kind” of electricity is known as Alternating Current (AC): Figure below

Direct vs alternating current

Whereas the familiar battery symbol is used as a generic symbol for any DC voltage source, the circle with the wavy line inside is the generic symbol for any AC voltage source.

One might wonder why anyone would bother with such a thing as AC. It is true that in some cases AC holds no practical advantage over DC. In applications where electricity is used to dissipate energy in the form of heat, the polarity or direction of current is irrelevant, so long as there is enough voltage and current to the load to produce the desired heat (power dissipation). However, with AC it is possible to build electric generators, motors and power distribution systems that are far more efficient than DC, and so we find AC used predominately across the world in high power applications. To explain the details of why this is so, a bit of background knowledge about AC is necessary.

If a machine is constructed to rotate a magnetic field around a set of stationary wire coils with the turning of a shaft, AC voltage will be produced across the wire coils as that shaft is rotated, in accordance with Faraday's Law of electromagnetic induction. This is the basic operating principle of an AC generator, also known as an alternator: Figure below

Alternator operation

Notice how the polarity of the voltage across the wire coils reverses as the opposite poles of the rotating magnet pass by. Connected to a load, this reversing voltage polarity will create a reversing current direction in the circuit. The faster the alternator's shaft is turned, the faster the magnet will spin, resulting in an alternating voltage and current that switches directions more often in a given amount of time.

While DC generators work on the same general principle of electromagnetic induction, their construction is not as simple as their AC counterparts. With a DC generator, the coil of wire is mounted in the shaft where the magnet is on the AC alternator, and electrical connections are made to this spinning coil via stationary carbon “brushes” contacting copper strips on the rotating shaft. All this is necessary to switch the coil's changing output polarity to the external circuit so the external circuit sees a constant polarity: Figure below

DC generator operation

The generator shown above will produce two pulses of voltage per revolution of the shaft, both pulses in the same direction (polarity). In order for a DC generator to produce constant voltage, rather than brief pulses of voltage once every 1/2 revolution, there are multiple sets of coils making intermittent contact with the brushes. The diagram shown above is a bit more simplified than what you would see in real life.

The problems involved with making and breaking electrical contact with a moving coil should be obvious (sparking and heat), especially if the shaft of the generator is revolving at high speed. If the atmosphere surrounding the machine contains flammable or explosive vapors, the practical problems of spark-producing brush contacts are even greater. An AC generator (alternator) does not require brushes and commutators to work, and so is immune to these problems experienced by DC generators.

The benefits of AC over DC with regard to generator design is also reflected in electric motors. While DC motors require the use of brushes to make electrical contact with moving coils of wire, AC motors do not. In fact, AC and DC motor designs are very similar to their generator counterparts (identical for the sake of this tutorial), the AC motor being dependent upon the reversing magnetic field produced by alternating current through its stationary coils of wire to rotate the rotating magnet around on its shaft, and the DC motor being dependent on the brush contacts making and breaking connections to reverse current through the rotating coil every 1/2 rotation (180 degrees).

So we know that AC generators and AC motors tend to be simpler than DC generators and DC motors. This relative simplicity translates into greater reliability and lower cost of manufacture. But what else is AC good for? Surely there must be more to it than design details of generators and motors! Indeed there is. There is an effect of electromagnetism known as mutual induction, whereby two or more coils of wire placed so that the changing magnetic field created by one induces a voltage in the other. If we have two mutually inductive coils and we energize one coil with AC, we will create an AC voltage in the other coil. When used as such, this device is known as a transformer: Figure below

Transformer “transforms” AC voltage and current.

The fundamental significance of a transformer is its ability to step voltage up or down from the powered coil to the unpowered coil. The AC voltage induced in the unpowered (“secondary”) coil is equal to the AC voltage across the powered (“primary”) coil multiplied by the ratio of secondary coil turns to primary coil turns. If the secondary coil is powering a load, the current through the secondary coil is just the opposite: primary coil current multiplied by the ratio of primary to secondary turns. This relationship has a very close mechanical analogy, using torque and speed to represent voltage and current, respectively: Figure below

Speed multiplication gear train steps torque down and speed up. Step-down transformer steps voltage down and current up.

If the winding ratio is reversed so that the primary coil has less turns than the secondary coil, the transformer “steps up” the voltage from the source level to a higher level at the load: Figure below

Speed reduction gear train steps torque up and speed down. Step-up transformer steps voltage up and current down.

The transformer's ability to step AC voltage up or down with ease gives AC an advantage unmatched by DC in the realm of power distribution in figure below. When transmitting electrical power over long distances, it is far more efficient to do so with stepped-up voltages and stepped-down currents (smaller-diameter wire with less resistive power losses), then step the voltage back down and the current back up for industry, business, or consumer use.

Transformers enable efficient long distance high voltage transmission of electric energy.

Transformer technology has made long-range electric power distribution practical. Without the ability to efficiently step voltage up and down, it would be cost-prohibitive to construct power systems for anything but close-range (within a few miles at most) use.

As useful as transformers are, they only work with AC, not DC. Because the phenomenon of mutual inductance relies on changing magnetic fields, and direct current (DC) can only produce steady magnetic fields, transformers simply will not work with direct current. Of course, direct current may be interrupted (pulsed) through the primary winding of a transformer to create a changing magnetic field (as is done in automotive ignition systems to produce high-voltage spark plug power from a low-voltage DC battery), but pulsed DC is not that different from AC. Perhaps more than any other reason, this is why AC finds such widespread application in power systems.

  • REVIEW:
  • DC stands for “Direct Current,” meaning voltage or current that maintains constant polarity or direction, respectively, over time.
  • AC stands for “Alternating Current,” meaning voltage or current that changes polarity or direction, respectively, over time.
  • AC electromechanical generators, known as alternators, are of simpler construction than DC electromechanical generators.
  • AC and DC motor design follows respective generator design principles very closely.
  • A transformer is a pair of mutually-inductive coils used to convey AC power from one coil to the other. Often, the number of turns in each coil is set to create a voltage increase or decrease from the powered (primary) coil to the unpowered (secondary) coil.
  • Secondary voltage = Primary voltage (secondary turns / primary turns)
  • Secondary current = Primary current (primary turns / secondary turns)