Alternating current

Alternating current (green curve). The horizontal axis measures time; the vertical, current or voltage.

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.[1][2]

The usual waveform of alternating current in most electric power circuits is a sine wave, whose positive half-period corresponds with positive direction of the current and vice versa. In certain applications, different waveforms are used, such as triangular or square waves. Audio and radio signals carried on electrical wires are also examples of alternating current. These types of alternating current carry information such as sound (audio) or images (video) sometimes carried by modulation of an AC carrier signal. These currents typically alternate at higher frequencies than those used in power transmission.

Transmission, distribution, and domestic power supply

A schematic representation of long distance electric power transmission. C=consumers, D=step down transformer, G=generator, I=current in the wires, Pe=power reaching the end of the transmission line, Pt=power entering the transmission line, Pw=power lost in the transmission line, R=total resistance in the wires, V=voltage at the beginning of the transmission line, U=step up transformer.

Electrical energy is distributed as alternating current because AC voltage may be increased or decreased with a transformer. This allows the power to be transmitted through power lines efficiently at high voltage, which reduces the energy lost as heat due to resistance of the wire, and transformed to a lower, safer, voltage for use. Use of a higher voltage leads to significantly more efficient transmission of power. The power losses () in the wire are a product of the square of the current (I) and the resistance (R) of the wire, described by the formula

This means that when transmitting a fixed power on a given wire, if the current is halved (i.e. the voltage is doubled), the power loss due to the wire's resistance will reduced to one quarter.

The power transmitted is equal to the product of the current and the voltage (assuming no phase difference); that is,

Consequently, power transmitted at a higher voltage requires less loss-producing current than for the same power at a lower voltage. Power is often transmitted at hundreds of kilovolts, and transformed to 100 V – 240 V for domestic use.

High voltage transmission lines deliver power from electric generation plants over long distances using alternating current. These lines are located in eastern Utah.

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.

Three-phase electrical generation is very common. The simplest way is to use three separate coils in the generator stator, physically offset by an angle of 120° (one-third of a complete 360° phase) to each other. Three current waveforms are produced that are equal in magnitude and 120° out of phase to each other. If coils are added opposite to these (60° spacing), they generate the same phases with reverse polarity and so can be simply wired together. In practice, higher "pole orders" are commonly used. For example, a 12-pole machine would have 36 coils (10° spacing). The advantage is that lower rotational speeds can be used to generate the same frequency. For example, a 2-pole machine running at 3600 rpm and a 12-pole machine running at 600 rpm produce the same frequency; the lower speed is preferable for larger machines. If the load on a three-phase system is balanced equally among 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. Non-linear loads (e.g. the switch-mode power supplies widely used) may require an oversized neutral bus and neutral conductor in the upstream distribution panel to handle harmonics. Harmonics can cause neutral conductor current levels to exceed that of one or all phase conductors.

For three-phase at utilization voltages a four-wire system is often used. When stepping down three-phase, a transformer with a Delta (3-wire) primary and a Star (4-wire, center-earthed) 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 neutral, or two phases and neutral, are taken to the property. For larger installations all three phases and 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 center-tapped transformer giving two live conductors, is a common distribution scheme for residential and small commercial buildings in North America. This arrangement is sometimes incorrectly referred to as "two phase". 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 55 V between each power conductor and 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 of 110 V between the two conductors for running the tools.

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.

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Wisselstroom
Alemannisch: Wechselstrom
العربية: تيار متردد
azərbaycanca: Dəyişən cərəyan
беларуская: Пераменны ток
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Зьменны ток
български: Променлив ток
Deutsch: Wechselstrom
Esperanto: Alterna kurento
한국어: 교류
Bahasa Indonesia: Arus bolak-balik
íslenska: Riðstraumur
қазақша: Айнымалы ток
Kreyòl ayisyen: Kouran altènatif (AC)
latviešu: Maiņstrāva
Malagasy: Zitina miherina
Bahasa Melayu: Arus ulang-alik
Nederlands: Wisselstroom
日本語: 交流
Nordfriisk: Wakselstruum
norsk nynorsk: Vekselspenning
português: Corrente alternada
Seeltersk: Wikselsponnenge
Simple English: Alternating current
slovenčina: Striedavý prúd
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Izmjenična struja
svenska: Växelström
українська: Змінний струм
Tiếng Việt: Điện xoay chiều
吴语: 交流电
粵語: 濕電
中文: 交流電