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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. 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 got its name from the term alternating current (AC).
Alternators are usually located 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 a single belt that drives all components that rely on crankshaft power. Most alternators are mounted using brackets that attach to a specific point on the engine. One of the brackets is usually a fixed point, while the other is adjustable for tensioning the drive belt.
Alternators produce alternating current through electromagnetism formed through the stator-rotor relationship, which we will touch on later in the article. Electricity is directed into the battery, providing the 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.
Alternators are mostly relatively small and light. About the size of a coconut, alternators found in most passenger cars and light trucks are constructed from an aluminum outer casing, since the lightweight metal is not magnetized. This is important because the aluminum dissipates the tremendous heat generated by the power generation and because the rotor assembly produces a magnetic field.
If you look carefully at the alternator, you will see that it has vents on both 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 in turn turns the pulley on the rotor shaft. Essentially, 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 see them:
S terminal – Senses battery voltage
IG terminal – Ignition switch that turns on the voltage regulator
L terminal – Closes the circuit to the warning lamp
B terminal – output terminal of the main alternator (connected to the battery)
F terminal – Full field bypass for regulator
Cooling is essential for alternator efficiency. It is easy to spot an older unit by the outer fan blades located on the rotor shaft behind the pulley. Modern alternators have cooling fans inside the aluminum case. These fans work in the same way, using mechanical power from the rotor shaft.
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 output power of the battery. The rectifier bridge converts the power, as we will learn in the next section, while the brushes and slip rings help conduct current to the rotor field or wire field windings. Now let’s open the coconut.
Opening the alternator reveals a large cylinder with triangular fingers around the circumference. This is the rotor. A basic alternator consists of a series of alternating finger poles placed around coil wires called field windings that wrap around an iron core on the rotor shaft. Since we know that the pulley attaches to the shaft, we can now visualize the rotor turning 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 speed without hitting the stator wall. At each end of the shaft there is a brush and a slip ring.
As we briefly mentioned, alternators generate energy through magnetism. Triangular finger poles fixed around the rim of the rotor are arranged so that the north and south poles alternate as they surround the wire rotor field windings. This alternating pattern creates a magnetic field which in turn induces a voltage in the stator. Think of the stator as a gripping glove because it uses all the power generated by the rotating rotor.
All of 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. Let’s look at how an alternator produces that power in the next section.
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 no longer the case. As automotive technology developed, so did the need for more power. Generators produce direct current, which travels in one direction, unlike the alternating current for electricity in our homes, which occasionally changes direction. As Tesla proved in 1887, alternating current became more attractive because it more efficiently creates a higher voltage, something that is necessary in modern cars. But car batteries cannot use alternating current because they produce direct current. As a result, the output power of the alternator is fed through diodes, which convert alternating current into direct current.
The rotor and stator are two components that produce energy. As the engine turns the alternator pulley, the rotor spins past three stationary stator windings, or coils of wire, surrounding 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 produces a subsequent alternating current in the stator. This alternating current is fed through the stator leads to the junction set of diodes. Two diodes are connected to each line of the stator for current regulation. Diodes are used to block and direct current. Since batteries need direct current, diodes become a one-way valve that will only allow current to flow in one direction.
Three-phase alternators have three sets of windings; they are more efficient than a single-phase alternator, which produces single-phase alternating current. When working properly, the three windings produce three currents that make up three phases. Adding all three together produces the total AC output of the stator.
The two basic stator winding designs are the triangular winding and the star shape. Delta wounds are easily recognized by their shape because they are triangular. These windings allow high current flow at lower rpm. 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 AC/DC conversion, the resulting voltage is ready for use in the battery. Too much or too little voltage can damage the battery, as well as other electrical components. To ensure the correct amount, the voltage regulator determines when and how much voltage is needed in the battery. One of two types of regulators are found in most alternators: the grounded regulator works by controlling the amount of negative or battery ground that goes into the rotor winding, while the grounded field type works the other way around – controlling the amount of battery positive. Neither represents an advantage over the other.
With so many components working to create the electricity 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, they fail. The following section will give you an idea of how to determine if you are stranded and what you can do if you need to replace the alternator.
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