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How Does an Alternator Work?
A car’s charging system consists of three main components: the battery, the voltage regulator and the alternator. Together with the battery, the alternator generates power for the vehicle’s electrical components, such as interior and exterior lights and the instrument panel. Alternator gets its name from the term alternating current (AC).
Alternators are usually located near the front of the engine and are driven by a crankshaft that converts the up and down motion of the pistons into circular motion. Some early model vehicles used a separate drive belt from the crankshaft pulley to the alternator pulley, but most cars today have a serpentine belt or a single belt that drives all components that depend on crankshaft power. Most alternators are mounted with brackets that bolt to a specific point on the engine. One of the brackets is usually a fixed point, while the other is adjustable to tighten the drive belt.
Alternators produce alternating current through electromagnetism, which is created through the stator-rotor relationship, which we will touch on later in the article. The electricity is directed to the battery, which provides voltage for the operation of various electrical systems. Before we learn more about the mechanics of an alternator and how it produces electricity, let’s take a look at the different parts of an alternator in the next section.
For the most part, alternators are relatively small and light. About the size of a coconut, alternators found in most passenger cars and light trucks are built with an aluminum outer casing, since the light metal does not become magnetized. This is important because aluminum dissipates the enormous amount of heat generated when generating electricity, and because the rotor assembly produces a magnetic field.
If you look closely at the alternator, you will find that it has vents on the front and back. Again, this helps dissipate heat. The drive pulley is attached to the rotor shaft on the front of the alternator. When the engine is running, the crankshaft turns the drive belt, which turns the pulley on the rotor shaft. Basically, the alternator transfers mechanical energy from the engine into electrical energy for the car’s accessories.
On the back of the alternator you will find several terminals (or connection points in the electrical circuit). Let’s take a look at these:
S terminal – Detects battery voltage
IG terminal – The ignition switch that turns on the voltage regulator
L terminal – Closes the circuit to the warning light
Terminal B – output terminal of the main alternator (connected to the battery)
F terminal – Full field circuit for regulator
Cooling is essential to alternator performance. The older unit is easy to spot by the outer fan blades on the pulley rotor shaft. Modern alternators have cooling fans in an aluminum housing. These fans work the same way, they use mechanical power from the shaft of a rotating rotor.
When we start to disassemble the alternator, we find the diode rectifier (or rectifier bridge), voltage regulator, slip rings and brushes. The regulator distributes the power generated by the alternator and controls the battery output. The rectifier bridge converts the power, as we will learn in the next section, while the brushes and slip rings help transfer current to the rotor field winding or wire field. Now let’s open the coconut.
Opening the alternator reveals a large cylinder with triangular finger bars around the circumference. This is the rotor. A basic alternator consists of a series of alternating finger poles placed around coiled wires called field windings that wrap around an iron core on the rotor shaft. Knowing that the pulley is attached to the shaft, we can now imagine how the rotor rotates inside the stator. The rotor assembly fits inside the stator with enough space or tolerance between the two so that the rotor can spin at high speeds without hitting the stator wall. At each end of the shaft there is a brush and a slip ring.
As we touched on briefly, alternators generate power through magnetism. Triangular finger poles attached around the circumference of the rotor are staggered so that the north and south poles alternate as they surround the field windings of the wire rotors. This alternating pattern creates a magnetic field that induces a voltage in the stator. Think of the stator as a catcher’s mitt, as it harnesses all the power generated by the spinning rotor.
All these components work together to give us the power we need to run our vehicles. Tesla captured this electricity and used it to light cities, but we only need enough volts to power our stereo, lights, windows and locks. In the next section, let’s look at how an alternator produces this power.
Understanding alternator power output
In the early days, cars used generators instead of alternators to power the vehicle’s electrical system and charge the battery. That’s not the case anymore. With the development of automotive technology, the need for more power has also increased. Generators produce direct current that travels in one direction, unlike the alternating current for electricity in our houses that periodically reverses directions. As Tesla proved in 1887, alternating current became more attractive because it more efficiently creates a higher voltage, which is essential in modern cars. But car batteries cannot use alternating current as they produce direct current. As a result, the output power of the alternator is fed through diodes that convert alternating current into direct current.
The rotor and stator are the two components that generate power. As the engine turns the alternator pulley, the rotor rotates past the three stationary stator windings, or coils of wire, that surround the fixed iron core that makes up the stator. This is called three-phase current. The windings of the coil are evenly spaced at 120 degree intervals around the iron shaft. The alternating magnetic field from the rotor induces a further alternating current in the stator. This alternating current is fed through the stator leads to the connecting diode array. Two current regulating diodes are connected to each stator lead. Diodes are used to block and direct current. Since batteries require direct current, diodes become a one-way valve that allows current to flow in one direction only.
Three-phase alternators have three sets of windings; they are more efficient than a single-phase alternator that produces single-phase alternating current. When operating correctly, the three windings produce three currents that make up the three phases. Adding all three together gives the total AC output power of the stator.
The two basic stator winding designs are delta wound and coil winding. Delta wounds are easily recognized by their shape, as they are triangular. These windings allow high current flow at lower turns. Wye windings resemble the flux capacitor seen in “Back to the Future”. These windings are ideal for diesel engines as they produce a higher voltage than delta stators at even lower rpm.
After the AC/DC conversion, the resulting voltage is ready for use in the battery. Voltage that is too high or too low can damage the battery and other electrical components. To ensure the correct amount, the voltage regulator determines when and how much voltage is required in the battery. One of two types of regulators is found in most alternators: a grounded regulator works to control the amount of negative or battery ground that goes into the rotor winding, while a grounded regulator works the other way around – by controlling the amount of battery. positively. Neither represents an advantage over the other.
With so many components that generate electricity that is vital to our vehicles, it’s safe to say that the alternator is a key component under the hood. But like many parts on our cars, these fail. The next section will give you an idea of how to tell if you’re stuck and what you can do if you need to replace the alternator.
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