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4/12/2017 How do inverters convert DC electricity to AC?

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Inverters
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byChrisWoodford.Lastupdated:April7,2017.

Oneofthemostsignificantbattlesofthe19thcenturywasfoughtnotoverlandorresourcesbuttoestablishthetypeofelectricitythatpowersourbuildings.

Attheveryendofthe1800s,AmericanelectricalpioneerThomasEdison(18471931)wentoutofhiswaytodemonstratethatdirectcurrent(DC)wasabetterwaytosupplyelectricalpowerthanalternatingcurrent(AC),asystembacked
byhisSerbianbornarchrivalNikolaTesla(18561943).EdisontriedallkindsofdeviouswaystoconvincepeoplethatACwastoodangerous,fromelectrocutinganelephantto(rathercunningly)supportingtheuseofACintheelectric
chairforadministeringthedeathpenalty.Evenso,Tesla'ssystemwonthedayandtheworldhasprettymuchrunonACpowereversince.

Theonlytroubleis,thoughmanyofourappliancesaredesignedtoworkwithAC,smallscalepowergeneratorsoftenproduceDC.ThatmeansifyouwanttorunsomethinglikeanACpoweredgadgetfromaDCcarbatteryinamobile
home,youneedadevicethatwillconvertDCtoACaninverter,asit'scalled.Let'stakeacloserlookatthesegadgetsandfindouthowtheywork!

Photo:Aselectionofelectricityinvertersthatcanbeusedwithrenewableenergygeneratingequipment,suchassolarcellsandmicrowindturbines.PhotobyWarrenGretzcourtesyofUSDepartmentofEnergy/NREL(DoE/NREL).

What'sthedifferencebetweenDCandACelectricity?

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4/12/2017 How do inverters convert DC electricity to AC?

Whenscienceteachersexplainthebasicideaofelectricitytousasaflowofelectrons,they'reusuallytalkingaboutdirectcurrent(DC).Welearnthattheelectronsworkabitlikealineofants,marchingalongwithpacketsofelectrical
energyinthesamewaythatantscarryleaves.That'sagoodenoughanalogyforsomethinglikeabasicflashlight,wherewehaveacircuit(anunbrokenelectricalloop)linkingabattery,alamp,andaswitchandelectricalenergyis
systematicallytransportedfromthebatterytothelampuntilallthebattery'senergyisdepleted.

Diagram:Whenwethinkofelectricityasaflowofelectrons,we'reusuallypicturingDC(directcurrent)inourminds.

Inbiggerhouseholdappliances,electricityworksadifferentway.Thepowersupplythatcomesfromtheoutletinyourwallisbasedonalternatingcurrent(AC),wheretheelectricityswitchesdirectionaround5060timeseachsecond(in
otherwords,atafrequencyof5060Hz).ItcanbehardtounderstandhowACdeliversenergywhenit'sconstantlychangingitsmindaboutwhereit'sgoing!Iftheelectronscomingoutofyourwalloutletget,let'ssay,afewmillimeters
downthecablethenhavetoreversedirectionandgobackagain,howdotheyevergettothelamponyourtabletomakeitlightup?

Theanswerisactuallyquitesimple.Imaginethecablesrunningbetweenthelampandthewallpackedfullofelectrons.Whenyouflickontheswitch,alltheelectronsfillingthecablevibratebackandforthinthelamp'sfilamentandthat
rapidshufflingaboutconvertselectricalenergyintoheatandmakesthelampbulbglow.Theelectronsdon'tnecessarilyhavetorunincircletotransportenergy:inAC,theysimply"runonthespot."

Whatisaninverter?

Photo:Atypicalelectricityinverter.ThisoneismadebyXantrex/TraceEngineering.PhotobyWarrenGretzcourtesyofUSDepartmentofEnergy/NREL(DoE/NREL).

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4/12/2017 How do inverters convert DC electricity to AC?

OneofTesla'slegacies(andthatofhisbusinesspartnerGeorgeWestinghouse,bossoftheWestinghouseElectricalCompany)isthatmostoftheapplianceswehaveinourhomesarespecificallydesignedtorunfromACpower.Appliances
thatneedDCbuthavetotakepowerfromACoutletsneedanextrapieceofequipmentcalledarectifier,typicallybuiltfromelectroniccomponentscalleddiodes,toconvertfromACtoDC.

Aninverterdoestheoppositejobandit'squiteeasytounderstandtheessenceofhowitworks.SupposeyouhaveabatteryinaflashlightandtheswitchisclosedsoDCflowsaroundthecircuit,alwaysinthesamedirection,likearacecar
aroundatrack.Nowwhatifyoutakethebatteryoutandturnitaround.Assumingitfitstheotherway,it'llalmostcertainlystillpowertheflashlightandyouwon'tnoticeanydifferenceinthelightyougetbuttheelectriccurrentwill
actuallybeflowingtheoppositeway.Supposeyouhadlightningfasthandsandweredeftenoughtokeepreversingthebattery5060timesasecond.You'dthenbeakindofmechanicalinverter,turningthebattery'sDCpowerintoACata
frequencyof5060hertz.

Ofcoursethekindofinvertersyoubuyinelectricalstoresdon'tworkquitethisway,thoughsomeareindeedmechanical:theyuseelectromagneticswitchesthatflickonandoffathighspeedtoreversethecurrentdirection.Inverterslike
thisoftenproducewhat'sknownasasquarewaveoutput:thecurrentiseitherflowingonewayortheoppositewayorit'sinstantlyswappingoverbetweenthetwostates:

Thesekindofsuddenpowerreversalsarequitebrutalforsomeformsofelectricalequipment.InnormalACpower,thecurrentgraduallyswapsfromonedirectiontotheotherinasinewavepattern,likethis:

ElectronicinverterscanbeusedtoproducethiskindofsmoothlyvaryingACoutputfromaDCinput.Theyuseelectroniccomponentscalledinductorsandcapacitorstomaketheoutputcurrentriseandfallmoregraduallythantheabrupt,
on/offswitchingsquarewaveoutputyougetwithabasicinverter.

InverterscanalsobeusedwithtransformerstochangeacertainDCinputvoltageintoacompletelydifferentACoutputvoltage(eitherhigherorlower)buttheoutputpowermustalwaysbelessthantheinputpower:itfollowsfromthe
conservationofenergythataninverterandtransformercan'tgiveoutmorepowerthantheytakeinandsomeenergyisboundtobelostasheataselectricityflowsthroughthevariouselectricalandelectroniccomponents.Inpractice,the
efficiencyofaninverterisoftenover90percent,thoughbasicphysicstellsussomeenergyhoweverlittleisalwaysbeingwastedsomewhere!

Howdoesaninverterwork?
We'vejusthadaverybasicoverviewofinvertersandnowlet'sgooveritagaininalittlebitmoredetail.

Imagineyou'reaDCbatteryandsomeonetapsyouontheshoulderandasksyoutoproduceACinstead.Howwouldyoudoit?Ifallthecurrentyouproduceflowsoutinonedirection,whataboutaddingasimpleswitchtoyouroutputlead?
Switchingyourcurrentonandoff,veryrapidly,wouldgivepulsesofdirectcurrentwhichwoulddoatleasthalfthejob.TomakeproperAC,you'dneedaswitchthatallowedyoutoreversethecurrentcompletelyanddoitabout5060
timeseverysecond.Visualizeyourselfasahumanbatteryswappingyourcontactsbackandforthover3000timesaminute.That'ssomeneatfingerworkyou'dneed!

Inessence,anoldfashionedmechanicalinverterboilsdowntoaswitchingunitconnectedtoanelectricitytransformer.Ifyou'vestudiedourarticleontransformers,you'llknowthatthey'reelectromagneticdevicesthatchangelowvoltage
ACtohighvoltageAC,orviceversa,usingtwocoilsofwire(calledtheprimaryandsecondary)woundaroundacommonironcore.Inamechanicalinverter,eitheranelectricmotororsomeotherkindofautomatedswitchingmechanism
flipstheincomingdirectcurrentbackandforthintheprimary,simplybyreversingthecontacts,andthatproducesalternatingcurrentinthesecondarysoit'snotsoverydifferentfromtheimaginaryinverterIsketchedoutabove.The
switchingdeviceworksabitliketheoneinanelectricdoorbell.Whenthepowerisconnected,itmagnetizestheswitch,pullingitopenandswitchingitoffverybriefly.Aspringpullstheswitchbackintoposition,turningitonagainand
repeatingtheprocessoverandoveragain.

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4/12/2017 How do inverters convert DC electricity to AC?

Animation:Thebasicconceptofanelectromechanicalinverter.DCfeedsintotheprimarywinding(pinkzigzagwiresontheleftside)ofatoroidaltransformer(browndonut),throughaspinningplate(redandblue)withcrisscross
connections.Astheplaterotates,itrepeatedlyswitchesovertheconnectionstotheprimarywinding,sothetransformerisreceivingACasitsinputinsteadofDC.Thisisastepuptransformerwithmorewindingsinthesecondary(yellow
zigzag,righthandside)thantheprimary,soitboostsasmallACinputvoltageintoalargerACoutput.ThespeedatwhichthediskrotatesgovernsthefrequencyoftheACoutput.Mostinvertersdon'tworkanythinglikethisthissimply
illustratestheconcept.Aninvertersetupthiswaywouldproduceaveryroughsquarewaveoutput.

Typesofinverters
IfyousimplyswitchaDCcurrentonandoff,orflipitbackandforthsoitsdirectionkeepsreversing,whatyouendupwithisveryabruptchangesofcurrent:allinonedirection,allintheotherdirection,andbackagain.Drawachartofthe
current(orvoltage)againsttimeandyou'llgetasquarewave.Althoughelectricityvaryinginthatfashionis,technically,analternatingcurrent,it'snotatalllikethealternatingcurrentsuppliedtoourhomes,whichvariesinamuchmore
smoothlyundulatingsinewave).Generallyspeaking,heftyappliancesinourhomesthatuserawpower(thingslikeelectricheaters,incandescentlamps,kettles,orfridges)don'tmuchcarewhatshapewavetheyreceive:alltheywantis
energyandlotsofitsosquarewavesreallydon'tbotherthem.Electronicdevices,ontheotherhand,aremuchmorefussyandpreferthesmootherinputtheygetfromasinewave.

Thisexplainswhyinverterscomeintwodistinctflavors:true/puresinewaveinverters(oftenshortenedtoPSW)andmodified/quasisinewaveinverters(shortenedtoMSW).Astheirnamesuggests,trueinvertersusewhatarecalled
toroidal(donutshaped)transformersandelectroniccircuitstotransformdirectcurrentintoasmoothlyvaryingalternatingcurrentverysimilartothekindofgenuinesinewavenormallysuppliedtoourhomes.Theycanbeusedtopowerany
kindofACappliancefromaDCsource,includingTVs,computers,videogames,radios,andstereos.Modifiedsinewaveinverters,ontheotherhand,userelativelyinexpensiveelectronics(thyristors,diodes,andothersimplecomponents)
toproduceakindof"roundedoff"squarewave(amuchrougherapproximationtoasinewave)andwhilethey'refinefordeliveringpowertoheftyelectricappliances,theycananddocauseproblemswithdelicateelectronics(oranything
withanelectronicormicroprocessorcontroller).Also,ifyouthinkaboutit,theirroundedoffsquarewavesaredeliveringmorepowertotheapplianceoverallthanapuresinewave(there'smoreareaunderasquarethanacurve),sothere's
someriskofoverheatingwithMSWinverters.Onthepositiveside,theytendtobequiteabitcheaperthantrueinvertersandoftenworkmoreefficiently(whichisimportantifyouwanttorunsomethingoffabatterywithalimitedcharge
becauseitwillrunforlonger).

Althoughmanyinvertersworkasstandaloneunits,withbatterystorage,thataretotallyindependentfromthegrid,others(knownasutilityinteractiveinvertersorgridtiedinverters)arespecificallydesignedtobeconnectedtothegrid
allthetimetypicallythey'reusedtosendelectricityfromsomethinglikeasolarpanelbacktothegridatexactlytherightvoltageandfrequency.That'sfineifyourmainobjectiveistogenerateyourownpower.It'snotsohelpfulifyou
wanttobeindependentofthegridsometimesoryouwantabackuppowersourceincaseofanoutage,becauseifyourconnectiontothegridgoesdown,andyou'renotmakinganyelectricityofyourown(forexample,it'snighttimeand
yoursolarpanelsareinactive),theinvertergoesdowntoo,andyou'recompletelywithoutpowerashelplessasyouwouldbewhetheryouweregeneratingyourownpowerornot.Forthisreason,somepeopleusebimodalorbirectional
inverters,whichcaneitherworkinstandaloneorgridtiedmode(thoughnotbothatthesametime).Sincetheyhaveextrabitsandpieces,theytendtobemorebulkyandmoreexpensive.

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4/12/2017 How do inverters convert DC electricity to AC?

Caption:NikolaTesla.Althoughhewonthewarofthecurrents,hisrivalThomasEdisonisstillrememberedasthepioneerofelectricpower.WoodengravingofTeslabySarong,c.1906,courtesyofUSLibraryofCongress.

Whatareinverterslike?
Inverterscanbeverybigandheftyespeciallyiftheyhavebuiltinbatterypackssotheycanworkinastandaloneway.Theyalsogeneratelotsofheat,whichiswhytheyhavelargeheatsinks(metalfins)andoftencoolingfansaswell.As
youcanseefromourtopphoto,typicalonesareaboutasbigasacarbatteryorcarbatterychargerlargerunitslooklikeabitlikeabankofcarbatteriesinaverticalstack.Thesmallestinvertersaremoreportableboxesthesizeofacar
radiothatyoucanplugintoyourcigarettelightersockettoproduceACforcharginglaptopcomputersorcellphones.

Justasappliancesvaryinthepowertheyconsume,soinvertersvaryinthepowertheyproduce.Typically,tobeonthesafeside,you'llneedaninverterratedaboutaquarterhigherthanthemaximumpoweroftheapplianceyouwantto
drive.Thatallowsforthefactthatsomeappliances(suchasfridgesandfreezersorfluorescentlamps)consumepeakpowerwhenthey'refirstswitchedon.Whileinverterscandeliverpeakpowerforshortperiodsoftime,it'simportantto
notethatthey'renotreallydesignedtooperateatpeakpowerforlongperiods.

Whatisanuninterruptiblepowersupply?

Oneverycommonuseforinvertersisinemergencypowersupplies,alsocalleduninterruptiblepowersuppliesoruninterruptiblepowersources(bothgoingbytheacronymUPS).Ifyourhouseholdpowerfailsinanoutage(blackout),you
mighthaveaUPSasabackupbuthowdoesitwork?
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4/12/2017 How do inverters convert DC electricity to AC?

AtypicalUPSstoresenergyinelectricalformusingrechargeablebatteries(someUPSsystemsstoreenergyinmechanicalformusingahighspeedflywheel,spuntohighspeedbyanelectricmotor).Whenthepowerisflowingnormally,the
batteriesarebeingtricklechargedbyDC,whichisproducedfromtheACpowersupplyusingatransformerandrectifiercircuit.Ifthepowerfails,whatyouhaveatyourdisposalischargedupbatteriesthatwillproducedirectcurrent,but
whichneedtoproducealternatingcurrenttopoweryourhome.SowhentheUPSissupplyingenergy,thebatteriespumpDCthroughaninvertertoproduceAC.

AUPSisoftencombinedwithasurgeprotectorandvoltageoptimizationequipmenttoproducearesilientpowersupplycapableofsurvivingspikes,surges,overvoltage,undervoltage,oracompletelossofpower.

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Books

ControlofPowerInvertersforDistributedGenerationandRenewableEnergybyQingChangZhongandTomasHornik.WileyBlackwell,2013.Explainstheuseofinvertersinrenewablepowergeneration,wherethingslikesolar
panelsproduceDCelectricitythathastobefedtoanACgrid.
PowerRectifiers,Inverters,andConvertersbyKengWu.Lulu,2008.Aguidetothetheoryofproducingpowerconvertingcircuits.
PowerConverterCircuitsbyByWilliamShepherdandLiZhang.CRCPress,2004.Coversrectifiers,inverters,cycloconverters,andotherpowerconversioncircuits.
UninterruptiblePowerSuppliesbyJohnPlattsandJohnSt.Aubyn(eds).PeterPeregrinus,1992.AcomprehensiveguidetothevariousdifferentkindsofUPStechnology,fromsimplebatterystorestodieselenginesandflywheels.
Alsocoversapplicationsinsuchthingsasairtransportation,medicine,andtelecommunications.

Articles
WhatItWillTaketoWinGoogle'sMillionDollarElectricPowerPrizebyNickStockton.Wired,August11,2014.Googlewantstoreinventpowerinverterstostimulatetheuptakeofrenewableenergy.
DCMicrogridsandtheVirtuesofLocalElectricitybyRajendraSinghandKrishnaShenai.IEEESpectrum,February6,2014.InverterswasteenergyconvertingDCpowertoAC,andthereareplentyofotherlossesinpower
generationanddistribution,sowhynotsimplysupplylowvoltageDCpowertohomestobeginwith?

Technicalreports

[PDF]PerformanceofPVInvertersbyFrankVignolaetal.SolarRadiationMonitoringLab,UniversityofOregon.Ausefulcomparisonofhowseveralinvertersperforminavarietyofrealworldtests.

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Youmightlikemynewbook,AtomsUndertheFloorboards:TheSurprisingScienceHiddeninYourHome,publishedworldwidebyBloomsbury.

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TextcopyrightChrisWoodford2009,2015.Allrightsreserved.Fullcopyrightnoticeandtermsofuse.

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