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Identify It! So What is it?

Identify It! an ongoing interactive feature of Harris Educational's Metal Oxide Rectifiers are electrical devices that allow electrical
blog (at reinventingscience.wordpress.com) and fan page on current to only flow in one direction in a circuit. They are
Facebook (at www.facebook.com/HarrisEducational). We post analogous to one-way valves as used in an air or vacuum
a picture of an item that relates in some way to science, pump.
technology, or math. Fans post comments guessing the
function, purpose, or significance of the item. We then post the Metal oxide rectifiers are used in power supply circuits to
answer to our blog along with this formatted printable sheet. convert alternating current (A.C.) into direct current (D.C.) They
Our answer will usually include detailed information about the were invented in 1933 many years prior to the invention of the
item as well as educational resources, links, and more. semiconductor diode. Selenium rectifiers were used up until
about 1975 in place of vacuum tube diodes in electronic devices
such as television sets and photocopiers because they were
more efficient (about 85% vs. 60% for vacuum tubes), could
handle a larger amount of current, and are “instantly-on” since
they don't have to warm up like a vacuum tube does before it
can operate. Although they are mostly obsolete today they are
still manufactured and used in applications that require
rectification of a large amount of electrical current such as in
battery chargers and welding equipment.
Most Selenium or Copper Oxide rectifiers were put together as
a stack of individual cells. Each cell could withstand about 20
volts. By adding multiple cells in series the voltage rating could
be increased almost indefinitely. Selenium rectifiers could
handle a larger amount of current (around 50 milliamperes per
square centimeter, 50ma/cm2) than Copper Oxide rectifiers and
replaced them in most applications. The large metal plates
(either square or round) function as a heat sink, providing a
large surface area to transfer heat to the surrounding air.
Each cell in a Selenium rectifier is made up of a pressure plate
Identify It! Image Posted on 10-29-2009 made of either aluminum or steel. This plate is then covered
with a very thin coating of another metal such as lead, bismuth,
Answer: Metal Oxide Rectifiers or nickel. A much thicker layer of selenium (usually doped with
Specifically Selenium Rectifiers and Copper Oxide Rectifiers a halogen) is first heated in an annealing process to form tiny
gray hexagonal crystals and is then deposited as the next layer.
The large square green stack is about 2” on a side and was Another steel or aluminum plate is added next in the stack, as is
removed from an unrepairable Motorola 17” TV from the early a steel heat sink plate.
1950's (similar model to 17T3). The light blue stack in the front
of the picture is about 1” on a side. It is no longer functional and
was removed from a 1950's Sherwood model 36 high fidelity
monaural audio amplifier. (The amplifier was repaired by
replacing the selenium rectifier with a pair of high current silicon
diodes). The “round” green stack is actually a copper oxide
rectifier and was removed from a 1960's era rotary converter
(also sometimes known as a dynamotor, a device for converting
low DC voltage to a higher AC voltage and then back into a
higher DC voltage). The other rectifiers were removed from
other 1950's and 1960's era televisions and other equipment. Exploded Diagram of a 2-cell Selenium Rectifier

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How does it work? A moving magnetic field causes an electrical current to flow
through a conductor. By rotating a coil of wire inside a magnetic
First some quick definitions: field a changing voltage can be generated. When the coil is
Voltage is a measure of electrical potential energy (also perpendicular (at right angles) to the magnetic field zero voltage
sometimes called electromotive force or EMF). Since voltage is is generated. As the coil rotates into a position parallel to the
potential energy it represents the ability to do work with magnetic field a maximum voltage is generated. As the coil
electricity. Voltage is measured in units of “volts” named after continues to rotate to 180 degrees (again perpendicular to the
the experimenter Alessandro Volta. magnetic field) the voltage drops to zero again. Then as the coil
moves to 270 degrees it is again parallel to the magnetic field,
Current is a measure of electricity in motion. Current is but facing in the opposite direction. At this point a maximum
measured in units called “Amperes” (Amps for short) which is voltage is again produced only this time it is negative since it is
named after the experimenter Andre'-Marie Ampere. Current is flowing in the opposite direction. As the coil returns to zero
a measure of the FLOW of electricity, i.e. how many electrons degrees rotation the voltage again drops back to zero and the
pass a given point in one second. The movement of electrons cycle starts over again. Generators spin fast enough that the
through a circuit is what causes useful work. electricity we use in our homes is changing like this sixty times
in one second.
Electrical Engineers say that when electricity flows from a
negative terminal of a power supply through a circuit and then We use A.C. like this because D.C. is susceptible to losses over
back into a positive terminal the electrical current is called D.C. distances due to the resistance of the transmission lines.
or Direct Current. D.C. has two characteristics: Devices known as transformers can be used with A.C. to step
the voltage and current up and down. This makes for a much
1. It flows in one direction only more efficient system of power transmission.
2. Once a D.C. power supply is turned on, the voltage
rapidly rises to 100% and remains there while the circuit Using A.C. to transmit electrical power works well BUT many
is in operation. In other words the voltage does not electrical devices and circuits need D.C. in order to operate
usually fluctuate. properly. The process of changing an alternating current into a
direct current is called rectification and is accomplished with
The electricity we use in our homes is called Alternating Current circuits made up of devices like Selenium Rectifiers, Vacuum
Tube Diodes, or Semiconductor Diodes. Since a rectifier only
allows an electrical current to flow through them in one direction
they may be arranged like one-way valves in order to change
the A.C. into a pulsating D.C. The addition of filter capacitors
and inductors can smooth out the pulsating D.C. into a usable
source of D.C. electricity.

Half and Full Wave Rectifier Circuits

A.C. (Generator Position vs. Voltage Output) over 1 rotation

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The physical interface between the selenium oxide and the up of a junction between copper and copper oxide that functions
other metal forms a kind of semiconductor junction due to the as a kind of surface junction diode to rectify A.C. to D.C.
different electron affinity of the two dissimilar metals. This Diode: The word “Diode” originally referred to a vacuum tube
exchange of electrons across the junction means that electrons that had two electrodes, a cathode and anode. These diode
can easily be made to flow in one direction but are largely tubes functioned as rectifiers because they only allowed
blocked from flowing in the opposite direction. This electron electrical current to flow in one direction (from cathode to
exchange process at the junction is what allows a metal oxide anode). Today diodes refer generically to any two terminal
rectifier to function as a rectifier. electrical device that has the property of allowing current to flow
in only one direction. Diodes are now mostly made of semi-
Selenium rectifiers were capable of handling a larger amount of conductor materials.
current and voltage than early semiconductor diodes due to the
large surface area of their junctions and the accompanying heat Direct Current (D.C.): Electrical current that flows in only one
sink plates that carried destructive heat away from the junction. direction in a circuit. Batteries produce Direct Current.
However over time the junctions in Selenium rectifiers do break Doped: A material is doped if it was originally a pure material but
down due to chemical changes caused by the remaining heat has had an impurity intentionally added for the purpose of
and the electrons traveling through the junction. creating a semiconductor (effecting how electrons may flow
through the material).
Metal oxide rectifier's failure rate turned out to be higher than
acceptable for consumer electronics and so they were phased Inductor: An electrical device (usually a coil of wire) that has the
out as soon as more reliable semiconductor diodes and effect of opposing changes in electrical current. Inductors are
rectifiers became available in the mid 1970's. When a Selenium used along with capacitors in power supply circuits to help
rectifier fails electricity can flow in both directions across the smooth pulsating D.C. into a more pure D.C.
junction. This means that it acts as a conductor in its normal Peak to Peak: The total positive difference in magnitude
forward bias direction, but then starts to act as a resistor in its between the highest positive and negative peaks of a periodic
reverse bias direction. The resistance starts off as a very high function such as a sine wave. One measure of A.C. electrical
value but as the junction fails it reduces until it becomes a power is its peak to peak value, though in practice the RMS
complete short circuit. Once this happens the metals in the value is more often used.
junction are heated to the point that they emit a small cloud of Pulsating D.C.: An electrical current that while flowing in only
toxic smoke that usually has a tell tale “rotten eggs” smell. one direction does vary periodically between a minimum value
Repair technicians could often identify the failure of a Selenium (usually zero) and a maximum value. Filters made up of
rectifier simply by the smell inside a piece of equipment where capacitors and inductors are used to smooth pulsating D.C.
one had failed.
Rectifier: An electrical device that allows electrical current to
Vocabulary Words used in this Article easily flow in one direction but that offers a very high resistance
in the opposite direction.
Alternating Current (A.C.): Electrical Current produced by a RMS: Root Mean Square is the mathematical process of taking
generator that has a voltage that changes magnitude and the square root of the average of squared values of a periodic
direction periodically usually as a sine wave function. function such as a sine wave. For a sine wave this is roughly
Anneal: A process in metal working in which a desired texture, 70.7% of its peak to peak value. RMS Voltage is sometimes
consistency, or harness is produced by gradually heating and called effective voltage because it is the equivalent to the D.C.
cooling. Similar to tempering. voltage capable of doing the same electrical work.
Capacitor: An electrical device that stores charge and therefore Selenium: Element number 34, with symbol Se and an atomic
opposes changes in voltage. Capacitors have two metal plates mass of 78.96. It is related to Sulfur and Tellurium.
that are separated by a non-conductive dielectric material. Selenium Rectifier: A now largely obsolete rectifier made of
Since capacitors oppose changes in voltage they are used as Selenium Oxide that forms a kind of junction diode.
filters in A.C. to D.C. power supplies to help smooth a pulsating
D.C. into a more flat D.C.
Copper Oxide Rectifier: Largely obsolete electrical device made

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Learn More! (useful links and resources) About the Author

Selenium Rectifier Entry on Wikipedia Bennett Harris holds a BS degree in Technology Education from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selenium_rectifier North Carolina State University. He has worked as an educator,
educational developer, textbook author, and most recently has
An article about safety when handling Selenium Rectifiers in been working developing multimedia e-learning. He has a deep
functioning electronic equipment originally posted to the passion for science, technology, history, and invention. He lives
newsgroup rec.antiques.radio+phono. in North Carolina with his wife Jessica, two English Setters
http://yarchive.net/electr/selenium_rectifiers.html named Cassidy and Sundance, and two cats named Chloe and
The Road to the Transistor (by Jed Margolin)
An article that traces the history and development of Harris Educational was founded by Bennett Harris and is the
semiconductor devices. originator and manufacturer of “Reinventing Science” science
http://www.jmargolin.com/history/trans.htm kits that integrate history and invention along with science and
math. Examples of our kits include “Reinventing Edison: Build
Cougar Electronics Corporation your own Light Bulb” and “Reinventing Morse: Build your own
One of the few remaining manufacturers of Selenium Rectifiers Telegraph.”

Metallic Rectifier Design and Application

by Julian Loebenstein
Published by the Radio Receptor Company, Inc
(A former manufacturer of Selenium Rectifiers)
Scanned and Formated Document hosted at Scribd

Sarkes Tarzian was an American born engineer, inventor, and

broadcaster. The company that bore his name, located in
Bloomington Indiana was a major supplier of Selenium rectifiers
to the consumer electronics industry.

A Dynamic Periodic Table of the Elements ptable.com


The Entry for Selenium at periodic table.com

http://www.periodictable.com/Elements/034/index.html The Bulb Begins to Glow: Reinventing Edison Science Kit

The Entry for Selenium at Wikipedia About this Document:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selenium This document (and related published articles) were completely
produced using Open Source Software!
An article about Copper Oxide Rectifiers from “Physical Review
Online Archive” originally published in 1951 Text, Layout and Editing: Open Office http://www.openoffice.org/
Graphics and Illustrations: Inkscape http://www.inkscape.org/
Rectifier and Rectifier Circuits at Wikia Technology/Wikitronics Images and Photography: The Gimp http://www.gimp.org
Blog Publication: Wordpress http://wordpress.org/

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