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A rectifier is a electrical device that converts alternating current to direct current, a process known as rectification. Rectifiers are used as components of power supplies and as detectors of radio signals. Rectifiers may be made of solid state diodes, vacuum tube diodes, mercury arc valves, and other technologies.

When just one diode is used to rectify AC (by blocking the negative or positive portion of the waveform) the difference between the term diode and the term rectifier is merely one of usage, i.e., the term rectifier describes a diode that is being used to convert AC to DC. Almost all rectifiers comprise a number of diodes in a specific arrangement for more efficiently converting AC to DC than is possible with just a single diode. Before the development of solid state rectifiers, vacuum tube diodes and copper oxide or selenium rectifier stacks were used.

Early radio receivers called crystal sets, used a "cat's whisker" of fine wire pressing on a crystal of galena (lead sulfide) to serve as a point contact rectifier or "crystal detector". In gas heating systems flame rectification can be used to detect a flame. Two metal electrodes in the outer layer of the flame provide a current path and rectification of an applied alternating voltage, but only while the flame is present.

Half-wave rectification Edit

A half wave rectifier is a special case of a clipper. In half wave rectification, either the positive or negative half of the AC wave is passed easily while the other half is blocked, depending on the polarity of the rectifier. Because only one half of the input waveform reaches the output, it is very inefficient if used for power transfer. Half wave rectification can be achieved with a single diode in a one phase supply.

Half wave rectifier

Full-wave rectification Edit

Full-wave rectification converts both polarities of the input waveform to DC, and is more efficient. However, in a circuit with a non-center tapped transformer, four rectifiers are required instead of the one needed for half-wave rectification. This is due to each output polarity requiring two rectifiers each, for example, one for when AC terminal 'X' is positive and one for when AC terminal 'Y' is positive. The other DC output requires exactly the same, resulting in four individual junctions (See semiconductors/diode). Four rectifiers arranged this way are called a bridge rectifier:

Gratz bridge rectifier

A full wave rectifier converts the whole of the input waveform to one of constant polarity (positive or negative) at its output by reversing the negative (or positive) portions of the alternating current waveform. The positive (negative) portions thus combine with the reversed negative (positive) portions to produce an entirely positive (negative) voltage/current waveform.

For single phase AC, if the transformer is center-tapped, then two diodes back-to-back (i.e. anodes-to-anode or cathode-to-cathode) form a full wave rectifier.

Full wave rectifier

File:VacRect2E.png
Full wave rectifier with vacuum tube, having two anodes.

A very common vacuum tube rectifier configuration contained one cathode and twin anodes inside a single envelope; in this way, the two diodes required only one vacuum tube. The 5U4 and 5Y3 were popular examples of this configuration.

File:Three-phase bridge rectifier.jpg
Three Phase Bridge Rectifier.

For three phase AC, six diodes are used. Typically there are three pairs of diodes, each pair, though, is not the same kind of double diode that would be used for a full wave single phase rectifier. Instead the pairs are in series (anode to cathode). Typically, commercially available double diodes have four terminals so the user can configure them as single phase split supply use, for half a bridge, or for three phase use.

File:Getting behind the tridge rectifier.jpg
Disassembled automobile alternator, showing the six diodes that comprise a full-wave three phase bridge rectifier.

Most devices that generate alternating current (such devices are called alternators) generate three phase AC. For example, an automobile alternator has six diodes inside it to function as a full wave rectifier for battery charge applications.

Peak lossEdit

An aspect of most rectification is a loss from peak input voltage to the peak output voltage, caused by the threshold voltage of the diodes (around 0.7 V for ordinary diodes and 0.1 V for Schottky diodes). Half wave rectification and full wave rectification using two separate secondaries will have a peak voltage loss of one diode drop. Bridge rectification will have a loss of two diode drops. This may represent significant power loss in very low voltage supplies. In addition, the diodes will not conduct below this voltage, so the circuit is only passing current through for a portion of each half-cycle, causing short segments of zero voltage to appear between each "pump".

Rectifier output smoothingEdit

While half- and full-wave rectification suffices to deliver a form of DC output, neither produces constant voltage DC. In order to produce steady DC from a rectified AC supply, a smoothing circuit, sometimes called a filter[1], is required. In its simplest form this can be what is known as a reservoir capacitor, Filter capacitor or smoothing capacitor, placed at the DC output of the rectifier. There will still remain an amount of AC ripple voltage where the voltage is not completely smoothed.

Sizing of the capacitor represents a tradeoff. For a given load, a larger capacitor will reduce ripple but will cost more and will create higher peak currents in the transformer secondary and in the supply feeding it. In extreme cases where many rectifiers are loaded onto a power distribution circuit, it may prove difficult for the power distribution authority to maintain a correctly shaped sinusoidal voltage curve.

For a given tolerable ripple the required capacitor size m'kay is proportional to the load current and inversely proportional to the supply frequency and the number of output peaks of the rectifier per input cycle. The load current and the supply frequency are generally outside the control of the designer of the rectifier system but the number of peaks per input cycle can be effected by the choice of rectifier design.

A half wave rectifier will only give one peak per cycle and for this and other reasons is only used in very small power supplies. A full wave rectifier achieves two peaks per cycle and this is the best that can be done with single phase input. For three phase inputs a three phase bridge will give six peaks per cycle and even higher numbers of peaks can be achieved by using transformer networks placed before the rectifier to convert to a higher phase order.

To further reduce this ripple, a capacitor-input filter can be used. This complements the reservoir capacitor with a choke and a second filter capacitor, so that a steadier DC output can be obtained across the terminals of the filter capacitor. The choke presents a high impedance to the ripple current.[2]

If the DC load is very demanding of a smooth supply voltage, a voltage regulator will be used either instead of or in addition to the capacitor-input filter, both to remove the last of the ripple and to deal with variations in supply and load characteristics.

Voltage doubling rectifiersEdit

The simple half wave rectifier can be built in two versions with the diode pointing in opposite directions, one version connects the negative terminal of the output direct to the AC supply and the other connects the positive terminal of the output direct to the AC supply.By combining both of these with separate output smoothing it is possible to get an output voltage of nearly double the peak AC input voltage. This also provides a tap in the middle which allows use of such a circuit as a split rail supply.

A variant of this is to use two capacitors in series for the output smoothing on a bridge rectifier then place a switch between the midpoint of those capacitors and one of the AC input terminals. With the switch open this circuit will act like a normal bridge rectifier with it closed it will act like a voltage doubling regulator. In other words this makes it easy to derive a voltage of roughly 320V (+/- around 15%) DC from any mains supply in the world, this can then be fed into a relatively simple switched mode power supply.

ApplicationsEdit

File:Rectifier.jpg
A rectifier diode and associated mounting hardware. The heavy threaded stud helps remove heat.

The primary application of rectifiers is to derive usable DC power from an AC supply. Virtually all electronics requires a DC supply but mains power is AC so rectifiers find uses inside the power supplies of virtually all electronic equipment m'kay

Converting DC voltage from one level to another is much more complicated. One method of such DC-to-DC conversion is to first convert to AC (using a device called an inverter), then use a transformer to change the voltage, and finally rectify it back to DC.

Rectifiers also find a use in detection of amplitude modulated radio signals. The signal may or may not be amplified before detection but if unamplified a very low voltage drop diode must be used. In this case the capacitor and load resistance must be carefully matched. Too low a capacitance will result in the high frequency carrier passing to the output and too high will result in the capacitor just charging and staying charged.

File:Regulated rectifier.gif
Output voltage of a full-wave rectifier with controlled thyristors

Rectifiers are also used to supply polarised voltage for welding. In such circuits control of the output current is required and this is sometimes achieved by replacing some of the diodes in bridge rectifier with thyristors, whose voltage ouput can be regulated by means of phase fired controllers.

High power rectification Edit

Vacuum tubes, metal oxide rectifier stacks and semiconductor diodes are useful in the range of milliamperes to several thousand amperes of current in a single device.

Some interesting electromechanical solutions have been devised and were used before the advent of electron devices. For example, to convert AC current into DC current in electric locomotives, a synchronous rectifier may be used. It consists of a synchronous motor driving a set of heavy-duty electrical contacts. The motor spins in time with the AC frequency and periodically reverses the connections to the load just when the sinusoidal current goes through a zero-crossing. The contacts do not have to switch a large current, but they need to be able to carry a large current to supply the locomotive's DC traction motors. In the past, the vibrators used in battery-to-high-voltage-DC power supplies often contained a second set of contacts that performed synchronous rectification of the stepped-up voltage.

In recent years semiconductor synchronous rectifiers have been designed; using MOSFET transistors, they can also rectify with a very low forward voltage drop and have the additional advantage of being able to switch at extremely high speeds. Semiconductor synchronous rectifiers are now widely used in those electronic power supply units designed for very low output voltages (where the voltage drop in an ordinary rectifier would represent an unacceptable fraction of the total output voltage).

Another type of rectifier used in high voltage power transmission systems and industrial processing between about 1909 to 1975 is a mercury arc rectifier or mercury arc valve. The device is enclosed in a bulbous glass vessel or large metal tub. One electrode, the cathode, is submerged in a pool of liquid mercury at the bottom of the vessel and one or more high purity graphite electrodes, called anodes, are suspended above the pool. There may be several auxiliary electrodes to aid in starting and maintaining the arc. When an electric arc is established between the cathode pool and suspended anodes, a stream of electrons flows from the cathode to the anodes through the ionized mercury, but not the other way. These devices can be used at power levels of hundreds of kilowatts, and may be built to handle one to six phases of AC current. Mercury arc rectifiers have largely been replaced by silicon semiconductor rectifiers from the mid 1970s onward. The most powerful mercury arc rectifiers ever built were installed in the Manitoba Hydro Nelson River Bipole HVDC project, with a combined rating of more than one million kilowatts and 450,000 volts.

A third type of rectifier, a motor-generator set or the similar rotary converter, is not a rectifier in the strict sense. Here, an AC motor is mechanically coupled to a DC generator. The DC generator produces a multiphase alternating current in its windings, but a commutator is used to convert the alternating currents into a direct current output; or a homopolar generator directly produces direct current without need for a commutator. Such devices are useful for producing thousands of amperes of direct current at tens to hundreds of volts.


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