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Using Electrical Currents: Alternating Current
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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Continuing with the theme from last month, there are numerous devices used in people’s daily lives that require an electrical current. Among those devices, the current they use is either direct current or alternating current. Before electricity was the norm in society, the type of electrical current used caused quite a bit of an uproar thanks to a dispute between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, which would become to be known as the War on Currents. As we’re well past the first decade of the 2000s, what devices use which electrical current has already been well established.

Though each country around the world has variations, many of them have decided on a standard current when supplying electricity to people and buildings. In the United States, the majority of our electricity and electrical systems are powered by alternating current (AC for short). Though this particular electrical current powers the majority of electrical devices, there are a few items people use regularly that require another powerful current, direct current — or DC for short. (But as we already covered that last month, we’re continuing on with alternating current.)

The result from Edison and Tesla’s altercation of direct current versus alternating current had Tesla and alternating current win out in the end. A main reason being there were a couple of setbacks with direct current that could not be overlooked. Along with not being easily converted to higher or lower voltages depending on the apparatus, direct current also couldn’t travel very far before the electricity began to lose power; it was roughly only a mile direct current could travel before losing power. Because it cost less, it could easily convert from high to low voltages and vice versa, and because it could carry electricity hundreds of miles with little to no loss of power, alternating current became the norm in the U.S.

As alternating current is currently the standard for the electric charge to power homes and businesses, it leaves another question hanging: what other electrical systems and devices require AC to operate? Similar to DC, some items need AC for specific reasons.

•     Generator or Alternator
A generator converts mechanical energy into electrical energy. Specifically in a generator, that energy is converted for usage in an outside circuit. In an alternator, once the mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy, the energy has an electrical charge — namely, it is alternating current. A generator’s purpose is to convert motion into electricity, and because of how electrons move in generators, they become alternating current. (Though, the electrical current can be converted to DC later on for other applications or devices.)

•     Motor
Motors are actually the opposite of alternators. This is a machine that converts electrical energy into mechanical energy. What makes this device even more special is that it can have an electrical charge of either AC or DC. It just depends on what the motor’s power source is that determines its electrical current. When powered by generators, power grids, or a coil, a motor produces alternating current. But when batteries, motor vehicles, or rectifiers power a motor, it produces direct current. Confused yet?

•     Electrical devices that have a plug which plugs directly into the socket

Yes, yes, last month’s post said anything that uses a transistor is using direct current. But electronics that require a converter box when they’re plugged in — such as with many laptops — are those that use DC. When something is plugged directly into the wall and doesn’t require a battery or converter (such as a lamp or a radio), those are the items that use AC. Has it gotten trickier now?

Transporting electricity hundreds of miles without losing power was one of many factors that caused alternating current to beat out direct current during Edison and Tesla’s War on Currents. But even though AC had an initial “positive” response, its present cost and the rise of new technology with high-voltage direct current (called HVDC in shorthand), have displayed the “negative” electrons aspects of Tesla’s choice. With direct current having a comeback in recent years, it seems like this electric war still has a … charge.


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