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How Does an Alternator Work?
An automotive charging system is made up of three major components: the battery, the voltage regulator, and the alternator. The alternator works with the battery to generate power for the vehicle’s electrical components, such as interior and exterior lights and the instrument panel. Alternator gets its name from the word alternating current (AC).
Alternators are usually found near the front of the engine and are driven by the crankshaft, which 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 one belt that drives all the components that rely on crankshaft power. Most alternators are mounted using brackets that bolt to a specific point on the engine. One of the brackets is usually a fixed point, while the other is adjustable for tightening the drive belt.
Alternators produce AC power through the electromagnetism created by the stator and rotor connections which we will touch on later in the article. Electricity is channeled into the battery, providing voltage to operate various electrical systems. Before learning more about the mechanics of an alternator and how it produces electricity, let’s look at the various parts of an alternator in the next section.
For the most part, alternators are relatively small and lightweight. Generally about the size of a coconut, alternators found in most passenger cars and light trucks are manufactured using aluminum outer housings, as the lightweight metal is not magnetized. This is important because the aluminum dissipates the tremendous heat generated by generating electrical power and the rotor assembly creating a magnetic field.
If you inspect the alternator closely, you will see that it has holes on both the front and back. Again, this helps in heat dissipation. A drive pulley is attached to the rotor shaft at the front of the alternator. When the engine is running, the crankshaft turns the drive belt, which turns the pulley on the rotor shaft. In short, an alternator transfers the mechanical energy from the engine into electrical power for the car’s accessories.
On the back of the alternator you will find several terminals (or connecting points in an electrical circuit). Let’s take a look at them:
S terminal – battery voltage sense
IG Terminal – The ignition switch that turns on the voltage regulator
L terminal – closes the circuit of the warning light
B terminal – Main alternator output terminal (connected to battery)
F Terminal – Full-field bypass for regulator
Cooling is essential for alternator performance. Old units are easy to locate by the outer fan blades found on the rotor shaft behind the pulley. Modern alternators have cooling fans in an aluminum housing. These fans operate in the same way by using mechanical power from a spinning rotor shaft.
As we begin 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 it controls the power output to the battery. The rectifier bridge converts the power, as we will learn in the next section, while the brushes and slip rings help drive current in the rotor field winding or wire field. Now open the coconut.
Opening the alternator reveals a large cylinder with triangular finger posts around the circumference. This is the rotor. A basic alternator consists of alternating finger pole pieces placed around coil wires wound around an iron core on a rotor shaft. Since we know that the pulley is attached to the shaft, we can now imagine how the rotor rotates inside the stator. The rotor assembly fits into the stator with a sufficient depth or tolerance between the two, so the rotor can rotate at high speeds without hitting the stator wall. A brush and a slip ring fit on each end of the shaft.
As we touched on briefly, alternators generate power through magnetism. The poles of the triangular fingers fixed around the circumference of the rotor are staggered, so the north and south poles alternate as the wires surround the rotor field winding. This alternating pattern creates a magnetic field that induces a voltage in the stator. Think of the stator as a catcher’s glove because it harnesses all the power created by the spinning rotor.
All these components work together to give us the power we need to drive our vehicles. Tesla captured this electrical energy and used it to light cities, but we need enough volts to power our stereos, lights, windows, and locks. In the next section we will see how the alternator generates that 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 is not the case now. As automotive technology evolved, so did the need for more power. Generators produce direct current, which travels in one direction, as opposed to alternating current, which changes direction periodically to power your home. As Tesla proved in 1887, alternating current became more attractive because it produced higher voltages more efficiently, something essential in contemporary automobiles. But car batteries cannot use AC power because they produce DC power. Consequently, the power output of the alternator is fed through a diode, which converts AC power into DC power.
Rotor and stator are two components that generate electricity. As the engine rotates the alternator pulley, the rotor rotates past three stationary stator windings, or coils of wire, around the stationary iron core that forms the stator. This is called three-phase current. The coil windings are evenly spaced around the iron shaft at 120 degree intervals. The alternating magnetic field of the rotor produces a subsequent alternating current in the stator. This AC current is supplied through the stator leads to the connecting set of diodes. Two diodes connect to each stator lead to regulate current. Diodes are essentially used to block and direct current. Since batteries require DC current, diodes become one-way valves that only allow current to flow in one direction.
A three-phase alternator consists of three sets of windings; They are more efficient than single-phase alternators, which produce single-phase AC current. When working properly, the three windings produce three currents forming three phases. Adding all three together forms the total AC output of the stator.
The two basic designs of stator winding are delta wound and wye style. Delta lesions are easily recognized by their shape, as they are triangular in shape. These windings allow high current at low RPM. Wye windings resemble the flux capacitors seen in “Back to the Future”. These windings are ideal for diesel engines, as they produce a higher voltage than delta stators at very low RPM.
After AC/DC conversion, the resulting voltage is ready for use in the battery. Too high or too low voltage can damage the battery as well as other electrical components. To ensure the correct amount, a voltage regulator determines when and how much voltage is needed in the battery. Two types of regulators are found in most alternators: the grounded regulator works by controlling the amount of negative or battery ground going into the windings in the rotor, while the grounded field type works in the opposite way – by controlling the amount of positive from the battery and neither has an advantage over the other.
While many components work to generate the essential electricity for our vehicles, it’s safe to say that the alternator is the key component under the hood. But like many parts of our cars, they fail. The next section will give you an idea of how to determine if you are stuck and what you can do if you need to replace your alternator.
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