A Few Words On DC And AC: What Exactly Are They?

A few disorganized concepts about direct and alternate current.

There are two main variations of the electrical current: the Direct Current, or DC, and the Alternate Current, or AC. But what does that mean?

The DC is the one you obtain when you power a device using batteries, for example. Batteries provide what is called Direct Voltage and that generates a Direct Current once applied to an electric circuit. If we draw a diagram of the voltage and, correspondingly, the current that flows in a circuit powered with DC, here is what we obtain:

This diagram basically tells us that the value of the voltage, and of the current, does not change over time. We usually define the current as flowing from the positive to the negative pole of the battery and that flow never changes over time.

The AC works like the DC, going from the positive to the negative voltage. The difference is that the voltage keeps switching: positive becomes negative and then becomes positive again, and so forth. And so the current keeps changing its direction accordingly.

Also, the AC does not change suddenly back and forth, but it does that progressively, following a shape called sine wave. All electrical energy distributed in our homes has this shape.

In USA, the AC current changes direction 120 times per second, which means that in one second there are 60 full periods of the sine wave. We say that the frequency of the current is 60 Hertz, abbreviated 60 Hz.

In Europe, 50 Hz is used instead. Other parts of the world either use one or the other.

The AC voltage is the one created in the power plants and provided, for example, at the wall outlets in your house by the energy service provider.

The voltage at the outlet is not constant as the one in the batteries. Instead, it changes continuously following the shape of a sine wave. Because of that, the polarity at each electrode of the outlet changes over time from positive to negative and vice versa, following the shape of the sine wave.

So, when we connect a device to the electric outlet, the current that will flow through that device will be an AC current as well.

The sinusoidal shape of the AC voltage depends on the way the electricity is generated. In the power plants, there are devices called alternators, a much bigger version of those that you can find inside your car to recharge its battery, or on a bike, to provide electricity to turn on the lights at night.

Depending on the power plant, a different kind of energy is used to put in motion the alternator. It could be fossil fuel or nuclear energy that heat a reservoir of water and create the steam that makes the alternator rotate. Or it could be the rotation of a propeller-like device that is put in motion by the wind.

Whatever is the source of the mechanical energy, the alternator converts that energy in electrical energy. But, since the rotation translates into a sine wave when described on a Cartesian reference system, the resulting electrical energy acquires that shape too.

But, why do we need both forms of voltage, DC and AC?

First of all, DC voltage is necessary to power up any electronic device, from your TV to your smartphone or radio or computer.

AC voltage, from the electrical engineering perspective, is used to transmit the electrical energy from the places where it is created to the places where it is used.

Back to the time where the first experiments of electricity transmission were conducted, there was a famous diatribe between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

Edison believed that the safest way to transmit electricity was to do that with cables powered with DC current.

Tesla argued that it was better to use AC current because it allowed much less waste of energy during the transportation, thanks to the fact that it is easier to convert the voltage from a low value to a higher one and vice versa, when using AC. And it is also very simple to convert the AC into DC when DC is needed, through a process called rectification.

As history tells us, Tesla won that battle, rightfully. And so, today, AC is used to bring the electrical energy to our homes from the power plants.

A Few Facts On Coulomb’s Law

A few words on the modern interpretation of Coulomb’s Law in terms of Fields Theory.

At the base of all the electromagnetism theory lays Coulomb’s Law, which describes why and how charges move in a medium, whether the medium is a conductor or the void.

Electrical and Electronics engineers are therefore supposed to be very familiar with this law. Let’s spend some time to provide a few important facts of the law. For that, we have to go back to the concept of ‘field’.

In modern physics, we usually tend to identify the effect of an entity over another entity with the name of field. Mathematically speaking, a field is a 3-dimensional matrix that assigns a specific value, usually a vector, to each point in the observed space.

Each time we put in that space an object capable of reacting with the field, we end up with a force applied to that object that is the product of the field in that point and the measurable value of that object.

So, in the case of charges, a single charge creates a field in the surrounding space. When we put in that space a second charge, the new charge will be subject to a force that is the product of the charge itself and the value of the field in that point in space.

Because charges can repel or attract, depending on their positive or negative sign, the field itself is directional, and therefore represented with vectors..

Here is a picture representing a field generated by a positive charge:

And here is a picture representing a field generated by a negative charge:

If the charge creating the field is Q, then the field can be represented by the following equation:

where E is the value of the field, actually the module of the field vector, and r is the distance from the charge of a point in space where the field is calculated. The constant ε0 is called “dielectric constant” and, in this formula, it assumes that the charge is located in the void or in thin air. An adjustment to the constant needs to be made when the medium is different.

We call this field an Electrostatic field, hence the E, because the charge that generates it does not move, it is static.

The force on a charge q put in the field can be calculated as:

And, since E is actually a vector, F is therefore also a vector.

If we want to represent this in actual vector format, we can write it as:

where

is the position vector of the charge q with respect to the charge Q. This is what is called Coulomb’s Law.

You can see that if the charges are both positive or both negative, the vector F is oriented such that the charge q moves away from the charge Q and, vice versa, when the charges have opposite sign, F is oriented toward Q.

That is exactly what we expected: charges of the same sign repel each other and charges of opposite sign attract each other.

As a further example, here is the graphical representation of an electrostatic field generated by two charges of opposite sign:

… and finally an electrostatic field generated by two charges of the same sign:

How To Choose A Resistor

How do we choose the right resistor when designing and building an electronic circuit? Here are the major parameters that should be kept into account.

bunch_of_resistors

A resistor is a component made out of a poor conducting material, so that it can offer a resistance to the flow of the current.

You can think to resistance in terms of the obstacles that charges encounter when moving from one end to the other of a conductor. The more obstacles, the higher the resistance. In a metallic wire, for example, the charges are the electrons of the conduction band (see this post and this other one for further details).

In today’s post I would like to address an issue that sometimes is underestimated when designing an electronic circuit: how to choose the right resistor for the job.

Resistors are not all the same. Besides the resistance value that distinguishes one from the other, there are other factors that are important as well.

Here is a list of all the important factors, why they are important, and what are the consequences of not choosing a resistor based on each specific factor.

  • The first thing that comes to mind is the tolerance, which is usually provided on the body of the resistor itself, along with its resistance value.

resistor_color_bands

In color coded resistors, the tolerance is defined by the band that is far away from all the others. In the above picture, for example, it is the gold band, which means that the tolerance is of 5%. In other resistors, where the resistance is explicitly written on the body of the resistor, the tolerance is usually written in clear along with the resistance. More in general, you’ll have to refer to the data sheet provided by the constructor to figure out its tolerance.
Tolerance is an important factor for those circuits that require very precise resistors, like measuring instruments and the like. It is also important when the resistor is used for the polarization of a critical component. If the resistors used in the project have a tolerance that is too high, the whole circuit may not function properly because the actual value of the resistor is too different from the one that was required.

  • Operating Temperature. This depends both from the ambient conditions and by the temperature raise produced by the power dissipation. There are two reasons to keep the temperature range into account. First, resistors slightly change their resistance with the change of the temperature. Using the resistor outside its temperature range would cause a variation greater than the one considered by the tolerance. Second, but not last, when the resistor is traversed by current it heats up. As long as the current stays within a range for which the power dissipation is not exceeded, everything is fine. Otherwise, the resistor can easily overheat and burn.

scorched_resistor

  • Maximum Voltage. Operating a resistor above its maximum voltage rating may cause sparks that would destroy the resistor.

burned_resistor

Resistors used in low power circuits usually have a maximum voltage in the order of at least 100V, and that’s why people usually don’t care or it doesn’t even know that there is such a parameter. In fact, low voltage circuits will normally never exceed the maximum voltage of any resistor. However, there are specific applications where voltages in the circuits can be above the 100V threshold. In such cases, it is important to verify that the resistors used in the circuit can withstand those voltages.

  • Temperature coefficient. This is the parameter that tells us how much the resistance changes per degree Celsius. It depends on the material the resistor is made of, but also on the heat dissipation capability of the component. Some resistors are built with an embedded heat sink to reduce the value of this factor.

power_resistor

This information becomes important in those cases where it is known that the resistor is going to dissipate a considerable amount of power. Based on that, it is possible to figure out if the resistor needs an external heat sink and, eventually, the heat sink thermal resistance.

  • Parasitic Capacitance and Inductance. A real resistor does not have only a resistance but also a very low value of capacity and inductance that may affect its functionality at high frequencies.

equivalent_resistor

These parasitic capacitance and inductance are caused by the physical dimensions and shape of the component and cannot be avoided. When working at high frequencies, these values need to be taken into account, since they will generate both capacitive and inductive reactance that will affect the value of the resistor at the particular frequency it is going to be used.

  • Packaging. This keeps into account where and how the resistor is going to be mounted. It can be a through holes resistor, which is provided with two leads to make the connections. The leads are usually inserted in the holes of a perforated board or of a Printed Circuit Board (PCB). Or, the resistor can be a Surface Mounted one. This has no wires, just two pads that can be directly soldered on a Surface Mounted technology (SMT) PCB. Other factors affecting the packaging include the possibility of attaching it to an external heat sink, and/or the necessity to properly ventilate it, to guarantee enough heat dissipation.