Definitions

smoothing circuit

Rectifier

[rek-tuh-fahy-er]
A rectifier is an electrical device that converts alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC), a process known as rectification. Rectifiers have many uses including as components of power supplies and as detectors of radio signals. Rectifiers may be made of solid state diodes, vacuum tube diodes, mercury arc valves, and other components.

A device which performs the opposite function (converting DC to AC) is known as an inverter.

When only one diode is used to rectify AC (by blocking the negative or positive portion of the waveform), the difference between the term diode and the term rectifier is merely one of usage, i.e., the term rectifier describes a diode that is being used to convert AC to DC. Almost all rectifiers comprise a number of diodes in a specific arrangement for more efficiently converting AC to DC than is possible with only one diode. Before the development of silicon semiconductor rectifiers, vacuum tube diodes and copper(I) oxide or selenium rectifier stacks were used.

Early radio receivers, called crystal radios, used a "cat's whisker" of fine wire pressing on a crystal of galena (lead sulfide) to serve as a point-contact rectifier or "crystal detector". In gas heating systems flame rectification can be used to detect a flame. Two metal electrodes in the outer layer of the flame provide a current path and rectification of an applied alternating voltage, but only while the flame is present.

Half-wave rectification

In half wave rectification, either the positive or negative half of the AC wave is passed, while the other half is blocked. Because only one half of the input waveform reaches the output, it is very inefficient if used for power transfer. Half-wave rectification can be achieved with a single diode in a one phase supply, or with three diodes in a three-phase supply.

Full-wave rectification

A full-wave rectifier converts the whole of the input waveform to one of constant polarity (positive or negative) at its output. Full-wave rectification converts both polarities of the input waveform to DC (direct current), and is more efficient. However, in a circuit with a non-center tapped transformer, four diodes are required instead of the one needed for half-wave rectification. (See semiconductors, diode). Four rectifiers arranged this way are called a diode bridge or bridge rectifier:

For single-phase AC, if the transformer is center-tapped, then two diodes back-to-back (i.e. anodes-to-anode or cathode-to-cathode) form a full-wave rectifier (in this case, the voltage is half of that for the non-tapped bridge circuit above, and the diagram voltages are not to scale).

A very common vacuum tube rectifier configuration contained one cathode and twin anodes inside a single envelope; in this way, the two diodes required only one vacuum tube. The 5U4 and 5Y3 were popular examples of this configuration.

For three-phase AC, six diodes are used. Typically there are three pairs of diodes, each pair, though, is not the same kind of double diode that would be used for a full wave single-phase rectifier. Instead the pairs are in series (anode to cathode). Typically, commercially available double diodes have four terminals so the user can configure them as single-phase split supply use, for half a bridge, or for three-phase use.

Most devices that generate alternating current (such devices are called alternators) generate three-phase AC. For example, an automobile alternator has six diodes inside it to function as a full-wave rectifier for battery charging applications.'''

Peak loss

An aspect of most rectification is a loss from peak input voltage to the peak output voltage, caused by the built-in voltage of the diodes (around 0.7 V for ordinary silicon p-n-junction diodes and 0.3 V for Schottky diodes). Half-wave rectification and full-wave rectification using two separate secondaries will have a peak voltage loss of one diode drop. Bridge rectification will have a loss of two diode drops. This may represent significant power loss in very low voltage supplies. In addition, the diodes will not conduct below this voltage, so the circuit is only passing current through for a portion of each half-cycle, causing short segments of zero voltage to appear between each "hump".

Rectifier output smoothing

While half-wave and full-wave rectification suffice to deliver a form of DC output, neither produces constant-voltage DC. In order to produce steady DC from a rectified AC supply, a smoothing circuit, sometimes called a filter, is required. In its simplest form this can be what is known as a reservoir capacitor, filter capacitor or smoothing capacitor, placed at the DC output of the rectifier. There will still remain an amount of AC ripple voltage where the voltage is not completely smoothed.

Sizing of the capacitor represents a tradeoff. For a given load, a larger capacitor will reduce ripple but will cost more and will create higher peak currents in the transformer secondary and in the supply feeding it. In extreme cases where many rectifiers are loaded onto a power distribution circuit, it may prove difficult for the power distribution authority to maintain a correctly shaped sinusoidal voltage curve.

For a given tolerable ripple the required capacitor size is proportional to the load current and inversely proportional to the supply frequency and the number of output peaks of the rectifier per input cycle. The load current and the supply frequency are generally outside the control of the designer of the rectifier system but the number of peaks per input cycle can be affected by the choice of rectifier design.

A half-wave rectifier will only give one peak per cycle and for this and other reasons is only used in very small power supplies. A full wave rectifier achieves two peaks per cycle and this is the best that can be done with single-phase input. For three-phase inputs a three-phase bridge will give six peaks per cycle and even higher numbers of peaks can be achieved by using transformer networks placed before the rectifier to convert to a higher phase order.

To further reduce this ripple, a capacitor-input filter can be used. This complements the reservoir capacitor with a choke and a second filter capacitor, so that a steadier DC output can be obtained across the terminals of the filter capacitor. The choke presents a high impedance to the ripple current.

If the DC load is very demanding of a smooth supply voltage, a voltage regulator will be used either instead of or in addition to the capacitor-input filter, both to remove the last of the ripple and to deal with variations in supply and load characteristics.

Voltage-doubling rectifiers

The simple half wave rectifier can be built in two versions with the diode pointing in opposite directions, one version connects the negative terminal of the output direct to the AC supply and the other connects the positive terminal of the output direct to the AC supply. By combining both of these with separate output smoothing it is possible to get an output voltage of nearly double the peak AC input voltage. This also provides a tap in the middle which allows use of such a circuit as a split rail supply.

A variant of this is to use two capacitors in series for the output smoothing on a bridge rectifier then place a switch between the midpoint of those capacitors and one of the AC input terminals. With the switch open this circuit will act like a normal bridge rectifier with it closed it will act like a voltage doubling rectifier. In other words this makes it easy to derive a voltage of roughly 320V (+/- around 15%) DC from any mains supply in the world, this can then be fed into a relatively simple switched mode power supply.

Cascaded stages of diodes and capacitors can be added to make a voltage multiplier. These circuits can provide a potential several times that of the peak value of the input AC, although limited in current output and regulation. Voltage multipliers are used to provide the high voltage for a CRT in a television receiver, or for powering high-voltage tubes such as image intensifiers or photomultipliers.

Applications

The primary application of rectifiers is to derive DC power from an AC supply. Virtually all electronics except simple motor circuits such as fans require a DC supply but mains power is AC so rectifiers find uses inside the power supplies of virtually all electronic equipment.

Converting DC voltage from one level to another is much more complicated. One method of such DC-to-DC conversion is to first convert to AC (using a device called an inverter), then use a transformer to change the voltage, and finally rectify it back to DC.

Rectifiers also find a use in detection of amplitude modulated radio signals. The signal may or may not be amplified before detection but if unamplified a very low voltage drop diode must be used. When using a rectifier for demodulation the capacitor and load resistance must be carefully matched. Too low a capacitance will result in the high frequency carrier passing to the output and too high will result in the capacitor just charging and staying charged.

Rectifiers are also used to supply polarised voltage for welding. In such circuits control of the output current is required and this is sometimes achieved by replacing some of the diodes in bridge rectifier with thyristors, whose voltage output can be regulated by means of phase fired controllers.

Thyristors are used in various classes of roling stock on various railway systems (Class 315,321,322 for example) in Thyristor Bridge rectifiers so that fine control of the traction motors can be achieved.

Gate Turn Off Thyristors (GTO) are used to produce Alternating Current from a DC supply, this is used on the Eurostar Trains to power the 3 phase traction motors.

Rectification technologies

Electromechanical

Early power conversion systems tended to be purely mechanical in design. This was initially due to the lack of scientific knowledge, since at the time electric power was still a new field of research.

Mechanical rectification systems usually rely on some form of rotation or resonant vibration in order to move quickly enough to match the frequency of the input power source, and cannot operate beyond several thousand cycles per second.

Due to the complexity of mechanical systems, they have traditionally needed a high level of maintenance to keep operating correctly. Moving parts will have friction, which requires lubrication and replacement due to wear. Opening mechanical contacts under load results in electrical arcs and sparks that heat and erode the contacts.

Synchronous Rectifier

To convert AC currents into DC current in electric locomotives, a synchronous rectifier may be used. It consists of a synchronous motor driving a set of heavy-duty electrical contacts. The motor spins in time with the AC frequency and periodically reverses the connections to the load just when the sinusoidal current goes through a zero-crossing. The contacts do not have to switch a large current, but they need to be able to carry a large current to supply the locomotive's DC traction motors.

Vibrator

In the past, the vibrators used in battery-to-high-voltage-DC power supplies often contained a second set of contacts that performed synchronous mechanical rectification of the stepped-up voltage.

Motor-Generator Set

Another type of rectifier, a motor-generator set or the similar rotary converter, is not a rectifier in the strict sense. Here, an AC motor is mechanically coupled to a DC generator. The DC generator produces a multiphase alternating current in its windings, but a commutator is used to convert the alternating currents into a direct current output; or a homopolar generator directly produces direct current without need for a commutator. Such devices are useful for producing thousands of amperes of direct current at tens to hundreds of volts.

Electrolytic

The electrolytic rectifier was an early device from the 1900s that is now no longer used. When two different metals are suspended in an electrolyte solution, it can be found that direct current flowing one way through the metals has less resistance than the other direction. These most commonly used an aluminum anode, and a lead or steel cathode, suspended in a solution of tri-ammonium ortho-phosphate.

The rectification action is due to a thin coating of aluminum hydroxide on the aluminum electrode, formed by first applying a strong current to the cell to build up the coating. The rectification process is temperature sensitive, and for best efficiency should not operate above 86 °F (30 °C). There is also a breakdown voltage where the coating is penetrated and the cell is short-circuited. electrochemical methods are often more fragile than mechanical methods, and can be sensitive to usage variations which can drastically change or completely disrupt the rectification processes.

Similar electrolytic devices were used as lightning arresters around the same era by suspending many aluminium cones in a tank of tri-ammomium ortho-phosphate solution. Unlike the rectifier, above, only aluminium electrodes were used, and used on A.C., there was no polarization and thus no rectifier action, but the chemistry was similar. .

The modern electrolytic capacitor, an essential component of most rectifier circuit configurations was also developed from this aluminium, ammomium ortho-phosphate chemistry, and although the solution is soaked into paper in modern electrolytic capacitors, some old models from the 1930s contain the free liquid solution, and if the capacitor is shaken the solution can be heard sloshing about inside. The dielectric of these capacitors consists of a tenacious layer of aluminium hydroxy-oxide adhering to the anode, (positive electrode), and maintained by the chemical action of the electrolyte and applied voltage. For this reason it is important that the polarity of the applied voltage across the electrolytic capacitor is correct and matches the markings on the can, otherwise the capacitor will depolarize and the aluminium anode inside will lose its insulating dielectric layer. The capacitor will then start conducting D.C. current. producing oxygen and hydrogen gases inside by electrochemical oxidation-reduction reactions, which can lead to the can of the capacitor bursting. Most modern electrolytic capacitors are designed to accommodate this eventuality, but older models can explode, ejecting the can with some velocity.

Electrolytic capacitors find extensive use as reservoir capacitors, filter capacitors or smoothing capacitors, placed across the DC output of the rectifier.

Mercury Arc

Another type of rectifier used in high-voltage direct current power transmission systems and industrial processing between about 1909 to 1975 is a mercury arc rectifier or mercury arc valve. The device is enclosed in a bulbous glass vessel or large metal tub. One electrode, the cathode, is submerged in a pool of liquid mercury at the bottom of the vessel and one or more high purity graphite electrodes, called anodes, are suspended above the pool. There may be several auxiliary electrodes to aid in starting and maintaining the arc. When an electric arc is established between the cathode pool and suspended anodes, a stream of electrons flows from the cathode to the anodes through the ionized mercury, but not the other way.

These devices can be used at power levels of hundreds of kilowatts, and may be built to handle one to six phases of AC current. Mercury arc rectifiers have largely been replaced by silicon semiconductor rectifiers from the mid 1970s onward. The most powerful mercury arc rectifiers ever built were installed in the Manitoba Hydro Nelson River Bipole HVDC project, with a combined rating of more than one million kilowatts and 450,000 volts.

Argon Gas Electron Tube

The General Electric Tungar rectifier was an argon gas-filled electron tube device with a tungsten filament cathode and a carbon button anode. It was useful for battery chargers and similar applications from the 1920s until low-cost solid state rectifiers supplanted it. These were made up to a few hundred volts and a few amperes rating, and in some sizes strongly resembled an incandescent lamp with an additional electrode.

Selenium and copper oxide rectifiers

Once common until replaced by more compact and less costly silicon solid state rectifiers, these units used stacks of metal plates and took advantage of the semiconductor properties of selenium or copper oxide. While selenium rectifiers were lighter in weight and used less power than comparable vacuum tube rectifiers, they had the disadvantage of finite life expectancy, increasing resistance with age, and were only suitable to use at low frequencies. Both selenium and copper oxide rectifiers have somewhat better tolerance of momentary voltage transients than silicon rectifiers.

Typically these rectifiers were made up of stacks of metal plates or washers, held together by a central bolt, with the number of stacks determined by voltage; each cell was rated for about 20 volts. An automotive battery charger rectifier might have only one cell; the high-voltage power supply for a vacuum tube might have dozens of stacked plates. Current density in an air-cooled selenium stack was about 600 mA per square inch of active area (about 90 mA per square centimeter).

High-speed Rectifiers

Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have proposed high-speed rectifiers that would sit at the center of spiral nanoantennas and convert infrared frequency electricity from AC to DC.. Infrared frequencies range from 0.3 to 400 terahertz, although the article about the INL research did not state the exact frequencies under study.

See also

Diode

References

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