An example of PWM in an idealized inductor driven by a ■ voltage source modulated as a series of pulses, resulting in a ■ sine-like current in the inductor. The rectangular voltage pulses nonetheless result in a more and more smooth current waveform, as the switching frequency increases. Note that the current waveform is the integral of the voltage waveform.
Pulse-width modulation (PWM), or pulse-duration modulation (PDM), is a way of describing a digital (binary/discrete) signal that was created through a modulation technique, which involves encoding a message into a pulsing signal. Although this modulation technique can be used to encode information for transmission, its main use is to allow the control of the power supplied to electrical devices, especially to inertial[definition needed] loads such as motors. In addition, PWM is one of the two principal algorithms used in photovoltaic solar battery chargers, the other being maximum power point tracking.
The average value of voltage (and current) fed to the load is controlled by turning the switch between supply and load on and off at a fast rate. The longer the switch is on compared to the off periods, the higher the total power supplied to the load.
The PWM switching frequency has to be much higher than what would affect the load (the device that uses the power), which is to say that the resultant waveform perceived by the load must be as smooth as possible. The rate (or frequency) at which the power supply must switch can vary greatly depending on load and application, for example
Switching has to be done several times a minute in an electric stove; 120 Hz in a lamp dimmer; between a few kilohertz (kHz) and tens of kHz for a motor drive; and well into the tens or hundreds of kHz in audio amplifiers and computer power supplies.
The term duty cycle describes the proportion of 'on' time to the regular interval or 'period' of time; a low duty cycle corresponds to low power, because the power is off for most of the time. Duty cycle is expressed in percent, 100% being fully on. When a digital signal is on half of the time and off the other half of the time, the digital signal has a duty cycle of 50% and resembles a "square" wave. When a digital signal spends more time in the on state than the off state, it has a duty cycle of >50%. When a digital signal spends more time in the off state than the on state, it has a duty cycle of <50%. Here is a pictorial that illustrates these three scenarios:
The main advantage of PWM is that power loss in the switching devices is very low. When a switch is off there is practically no current, and when it is on and power is being transferred to the load, there is almost no voltage drop across the switch. Power loss, being the product of voltage and current, is thus in both cases close to zero. PWM also works well with digital controls, which, because of their on/off nature, can easily set the needed duty cycle.
PWM has also been used in certain communication systems where its duty cycle has been used to convey information over a communications channel.
Some machines (such as a sewing machine motor) require partial or variable power. In the past, control (such as in a sewing machine's foot pedal) was implemented by use of a rheostat connected in series with the motor to adjust the amount of voltage flowing through the motor. It was an inefficient scheme, as this also wasted power as heat in the resistor element of the rheostat, but tolerable because the total power was low. While the rheostat was one of several methods of controlling power (see autotransformers and Variac for more info), a low cost and efficient power switching/adjustment method was yet to be found. This mechanism also needed to be able to drive motors for fans, pumps and roboticservos, and needed to be compact enough to interface with lamp dimmers. PWM emerged as a solution for this complex problem.
One early application of PWM was in the Sinclair X10, a 10 W audio amplifier available in kit form in the 1960s. At around the same time PWM started to be used in AC motor control.
Of note, for about a century, some variable-speed electric motors have had decent efficiency, but they were somewhat more complex than constant-speed motors, and sometimes required bulky external electrical apparatus, such as a bank of variable power resistors or rotating converters such as the Ward Leonard drive.