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 (Cockroft-Walton circuit). 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 photo multipliers.
The primary application of rectifiers is to derive DC power from an AC supply. Virtually all electronic devices require DC, so rectifiers find uses inside the power supplies of virtually all electronic equipment.
Converting DC power from one voltage to another is much more complicated. One method of
conversion first converts power to AC (using a device called an inverter), then use a transformer to change the voltage, and finally rectifies power back to DC. DC-to-DC
A rectifier diode (silicon controlled rectifier) and associated mounting
hardware. The heavy threaded stud helps remove heat.
Rectifiers also find a use in detection of amplitude modulated radio signals. The signal may or may not be amplified before detection but if un-amplified 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 railway rolling stock systems so that fine control of the traction motors can be achieved. Gate turn-off thyristors are used to produce alternating current from a DC supply, for example on the Eurostar Trains to power the three-phase traction motors.
Early power conversion systems were purely electro-mechanical in design, since electronic devices were not available to handle significant power. 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.
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.
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.
A motor-generator set or the similar rotary converter, is not a rectifier in the sense that it doesn't actually rectify current, but rather generates DC from an AC source. In an "M-G set", the shaft of an AC motor is mechanically coupled to that of a DC generator. The DC generator produces multiphase alternating currents in its armature windings, and a commutatar on the armature shaft converts these alternating currents into a direct current output; or a homopolar generator produces a direct current without the need for a commutator. M-G sets are useful for producing DC for railway traction motors, industrial motors and other high-current applications, and were common in many high power D.C. uses (for example, carbon-arc lamp projectors for outdoor theaters) before high-power semiconductors became widely available.
The electrolytic rectifier was an early device from the 1900s that is 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 the electrolytic rectifier.
A 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. [In principle, this is a higher-power counterpart to flame rectification, which uses the same one-way current transmission properties of the plasma naturally present in a flame.
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 been replaced by silicon semiconductor rectifiers and high power thyristor circuits, 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 (the metal rectifiers at first) 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.
The 0Z4 was a gas-filled rectifier tube commonly used in vacuum tube car radios in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a conventional full wave rectifier tube with two anodes and one cathode, but was unique in that it had no filament (thus the "0" in its type number). The electrodes were shaped such that the reverse breakdown voltage was much higher than the forward breakdown voltage. Once the breakdown voltage was exceeded, the 0Z4 switched to a low-resistance state with a forward voltage drop of about 24 volts.
Vacuum tube (valve)
Since the discovery of the
Edison effect or thermionic emission, various vacuum tube devices have been developed to rectify alternating currents. Low-power devices are used as signal detectors, first used in radio by Fleming in 1904. Many vacuum-tube devices also used vacuum rectifiers in their power supplies, for example the All American Five radio receiver. Vacuum rectifiers were made for very high voltages, such as the high voltage power supply for the cathode ray tube of television receivers, and the kenotron used for power supply in X-ray equipment. However, vacuum rectifiers generally had low current capacity owing to the maximum current density that could be obtained by electrodes heated to temperatures compatible with long life. Another limitation of the vacuum tube rectifier was that the heater power supply often required special arrangements to insulate it from the high voltages of the rectifier circuit.
The cat's-whisker detector, using a crystal such as galena, was the earliest type of solid state diode.
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).
Silicon and germanium diodes
In the modern world, silicon diodes are the most widely used rectifiers and have largely replaced earlier germanium diodes.
Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have proposed high-speed rectifiers that would sit at the center of spiral nano-antennas 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.
A Uni-molecular rectifier is a single organic molecule which functions as a rectifier. The technology is still in the experimental stage.