Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rectifier Basics - Part1

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". Rectification may occasionally serve in roles other than to generate D.C. current per se. For example, in gas heating systems flame rectification is used to detect presence of flame. Two metal electrodes in the outer layer of the flame provide a current path, and rectification of an applied alternating voltage will happen in the plasma, but only while the flame is present to generate it.

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.

The output DC voltage of a half wave rectifier can be calculated with the following two ideal equations:

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. Four diodes arranged this way are called a diode bridge or bridge rectifier:
                                       Graetz bridge rectifier: a full-wave rectifier using 4 diodes.

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) can form a full-wave rectifier. Twice as many windings are required on the transformer secondary to obtain the same output voltage compared to the bridge rectifier above.
                                           Full-wave rectifier using a transformer and 2 diodes.

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.
                                              Full-wave rectifier, with vacuum tube having two anodes.

The average and root-mean-square output voltages of an ideal single phase full wave rectifier can be calculated as:

Vdc,Vav - the average or DC output voltage,
Vp - the peak value of half wave,
Vrms - the root-mean-square value of output voltage.
π = ~ 3.14159
e = ~ 2.71828
                                                          A three-phase bridge rectifier.

                                    3-phase AC input, half & full wave rectified DC output waveforms

Peak loss
An aspect of most rectification is a loss from the peak input voltage to the peak output voltage, caused by the built-in voltage drop across 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".
Disassembled automobile alternator, showing the six diodes that comprise a full-wave three-phase bridge rectifier.
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 or filter is required. In its simplest form this can be just a reservoir 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.
                                                                     RC-Filter Rectifier

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 (inductor) 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.

A more usual alternative to a filter, and essential if the DC load is very demanding of a smooth supply voltage, is to follow the reservoir capacitor with a voltage regulator. The reservoir capacitor needs to be large enough to prevent the troughs of the ripple getting below the voltage the DC is being regulated to. The regulator serves both to remove the last of the ripple and to deal with variations in supply and load characteristics. It would be possible to use a smaller reservoir capacitor (these can be large on high-current power supplies) and then apply some filtering as well as the regulator, but this is not a common strategy. The extreme of this approach is to dispense with the reservoir capacitor altogether and put the rectified waveform straight into a choke-input filter. The advantage of this circuit is that the current waveform is smoother and consequently the rectifier no longer has to deal with the current as a large current pulse, but instead the current delivery is spread over the entire cycle. The downside is that the voltage output is much lower – approximately the average of an AC half-cycle rather than the peak.

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