A rectifier is an electrical device that converts alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC), a process known as rectification. Rectifiers have many uses including as components of power supplies and asdetectors of radio signals. Rectifiers may be made of solid state diodes, vacuum tube diodes, mercury arc valves, and other components and then we have to add those things.
A device which performs the opposite function (converting DC to AC) is known as an inverter.
When only 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 rectifierdescribes 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 only one diode. Before the development of silicon semiconductor rectifiers, vacuum tube diodes and copper(I) oxide or selenium rectifier stacks were used.
Early radio receivers, called crystal radios, 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". Rectification may occasionally serve in roles other than to generate D.C. current per se. For example, in gas heating systems flame rectification is used to detect presence of flame. Two metal electrodes in the outer layer of the flame provide a current path, and rectification of an applied alternating voltage will happen in the plasma, but only while the flame is present to generate it.
In half wave rectification, either the positive or negative half of the AC wave is passed, while the other half is blocked. 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, or with three diodes in a three-phase supply.
The output DC voltage of a half wave rectifier can be calculated with the following two ideal equations:
A full-wave rectifier converts the whole of the input waveform to one of constant polarity (positive or negative) at its output. Full-wave rectification converts both polarities of the input waveform to DC (direct current), and is more efficient. However, in a circuit with a non-center tapped transformer, four diodes are required instead of the one needed for half-wave rectification. (See semiconductors, diode). Four diodes arranged this way are called a diode bridge or bridge rectifier:
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) can form a full-wave rectifier. Twice as many windings are required on the transformer secondary to obtain the same output voltage compared to the bridge rectifier above.
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.
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.
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 charging applications.
The average and root-mean-square output voltages of an ideal single phase full wave rectifier can be calculated as:
- Vdc,Vav - the average or DC output voltage,
- Vp - the peak value of half wave,
- Vrms - the root-mean-square value of output voltage.
- π = ~ 3.14159
- e = ~ 2.71828
An aspect of most rectification is a loss from the peak input voltage to the peak output voltage, caused by the built-in voltage drop across the diodes (around 0.7 V for ordinary silicon p-n-junction diodes and 0.3 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 "hump".
Rectifier output smoothing
While half-wave and full-wave rectification suffice 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 or filter is required. In its simplest form this can be just a reservoir 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 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 affected 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 (inductor) 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 highimpedance to the ripple current.
A more usual alternative to a filter, and essential if the DC load is very demanding of a smooth supply voltage, is to follow the reservoir capacitor with a voltage regulator. The reservoir capacitor needs to be large enough to prevent the troughs of the ripple getting below the voltage the DC is being regulated to. The regulator serves both to remove the last of the ripple and to deal with variations in supply and load characteristics. It would be possible to use a smaller reservoir capacitor (these can be large on high-current power supplies) and then apply some filtering as well as the regulator, but this is not a common strategy. The extreme of this approach is to dispense with the reservoir capacitor altogether and put the rectified waveform straight into a choke-input filter. The advantage of this circuit is that the current waveform is smoother and consequently the rectifier no longer has to deal with the current as a large current pulse, but instead the current delivery is spread over the entire cycle. The downside is that the voltage output is much lower – approximately the average of an AC half-cycle rather than the peak.
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 rectifier. 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.
Cascaded stages of diodes and capacitors can be added to make a voltage multiplier (Cockroft-Walton circuit). These circuits can provide a potential several times that of the peak value of the input AC, although limited in current output and regulation. Voltage multipliers are used to provide the high voltage for a CRT in a television receiver, or for powering high-voltage tubes such as image intensifiers or photo multipliers.
The primary application of rectifiers is to derive DC power from an AC supply. Virtually all electronic devices require DC, so rectifiers find uses inside the power supplies of virtually all electronic equipment.
Converting DC power from one voltage to another is much more complicated. One method of DC-to-DC conversion first converts power to AC (using a device called aninverter), then use a transformer to change the voltage, and finally rectifies power back to DC.
Rectifiers also find a use in detection of amplitude modulated radio signals. The signal may be amplified before detection, but if un-amplified, a very low voltage drop diode must be used. When using a rectifier for demodulation 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.
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 output can be regulated by means of phase fired controllers.
Thyristors are used in various classes of railway rolling stock systems so that fine control of the traction motors can be achieved. Gate turn-off thyristors are used to produce alternating current from a DC supply, for example on the Eurostar Trains to power the three-phase traction motors.
Early power conversion systems were purely electro-mechanical in design, since electronic devices were not available to handle significant power. Mechanical rectification systems usually rely on some form of rotation or resonant vibration in order to move quickly enough to match the frequency of the input power source, and cannot operate beyond several thousand cycles per second.
Due to the complexity of mechanical systems, they have traditionally needed a high level of maintenance to keep operating correctly. Moving parts will have friction, which requires lubrication and replacement due to wear. Opening mechanical contacts under load results in electrical arcs and sparks that heat and erode the contacts.
To convert AC currents 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 mechanical rectification of the stepped-up voltage.
A motor-generator set or the similar rotary converter, is not a rectifier in the sense that it doesn't actually rectify current, but rather generates DC from an AC source. In an "M-G set", the shaft of an AC motor is mechanically coupled to that of a DC generator. The DC generator produces multiphase alternating currents in its armature windings, and a commutator on the armature shaft converts these alternating currents into a direct current output; or a homopolar generator produces a direct current without the need for a commutator. M-G sets are useful for producing DC for railway traction motors, industrial motors and other high-current applications, and were common in many high power D.C. uses (for example, carbon-arc lamp projectors for outdoor theaters) before high-power semiconductors became widely available.
The electrolytic rectifier was an early device from the 1900s that is no longer used. When two different metals are suspended in an electrolyte solution, it can be found that direct current flowing one way through the metals has less resistance than the other direction. These most commonly used an aluminum anode, and a lead or steel cathode, suspended in a solution of tri-ammonium ortho-phosphate.
The rectification action is due to a thin coating of aluminum hydroxide on the aluminum electrode, formed by first applying a strong current to the cell to build up the coating. The rectification process is temperature sensitive, and for best efficiency should not operate above 86 °F (30 °C). There is also a breakdown voltage where the coating is penetrated and the cell is short-circuited. Electrochemical methods are often more fragile than mechanical methods, and can be sensitive to usage variations which can drastically change or completely disrupt the rectification processes.
Similar electrolytic devices were used as lightning arresters around the same era by suspending many aluminium cones in a tank of tri-ammomium ortho-phosphate solution. Unlike the rectifier, above, only aluminium electrodes were used, and used on A.C., there was no polarization and thus no rectifier action, but the chemistry was similar.
The modern electrolytic capacitor, an essential component of most rectifier circuit configurations was also developed from the electrolytic rectifier.
A rectifier used in high-voltage direct current 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. [In principle, this is a higher-power counterpart to flame rectification, which uses the same one-way current transmission properties of the plasma naturally present in a flame].
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 been replaced by silicon semiconductor rectifiers and high power thyristor circuits, 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.
Argon gas electron tube
The General Electric Tungar rectifier was an argon gas-filled electron tube device with a tungsten filament cathode and a carbon button anode. It was useful for battery chargers and similar applications from the 1920s until low-cost solid-state rectifiers (the metal rectifiers at first) supplanted it. These were made up to a few hundred volts and a few amperes rating, and in some sizes strongly resembled an incandescent lamp with an additional electrode.
The 0Z4 was a gas-filled rectifier tube commonly used in vacuum tube car radios in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a conventional full wave rectifier tube with two anodes and one cathode, but was unique in that it had no filament (thus the "0" in its type number). The electrodes were shaped such that the reverse breakdown voltage was much higher than the forward breakdown voltage. Once the breakdown voltage was exceeded, the 0Z4 switched to a low-resistance state with a forward voltage drop of about 24 volts.
Vacuum tube (valve)
Since the discovery of the Edison effect or thermionic emission, various vacuum tube devices have been developed to rectify alternating currents. Low-power devices are used as signal detectors, first used in radio by Fleming in 1904. Many vacuum-tube devices also used vacuum rectifiers in their power supplies, for example the All American Five radio receiver. Vacuum rectifiers were made for very high voltages, such as the high voltage power supply for the cathode ray tube of television receivers, and the kenotron used for power supply in X-ray equipment. However, vacuum rectifiers generally had low current capacity owing to the maximum current density that could be obtained by electrodes heated to temperatures compatible with long life. Another limitation of the vacuum tube rectifier was that the heater power supply often required special arrangements to insulate it from the high voltages of the rectifier circuit.
The cat's-whisker detector, using a crystal such as galena, was the earliest type of solid state diode.
Selenium and copper oxide rectifiers
Once common until replaced by more compact and less costly silicon solid-state rectifiers, these units used stacks of metal plates and took advantage of the semiconductor properties of selenium or copper oxide. While selenium rectifiers were lighter in weight and used less power than comparable vacuum tube rectifiers, they had the disadvantage of finite life expectancy, increasing resistance with age, and were only suitable to use at low frequencies. Both selenium and copper oxide rectifiers have somewhat better tolerance of momentary voltage transients than silicon rectifiers.
Typically these rectifiers were made up of stacks of metal plates or washers, held together by a central bolt, with the number of stacks determined by voltage; each cell was rated for about 20 volts. An automotive battery charger rectifier might have only one cell: the high-voltage power supply for a vacuum tube might have dozens of stacked plates. Current density in an air-cooled selenium stack was about 600 mA per square inch of active area (about 90 mA per square centimeter).
Silicon and germanium diodes
In the modern world, silicon diodes are the most widely used rectifiers and have largely replaced earlier germanium diodes.
Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have proposed high-speed rectifiers that would sit at the center of spiral nanoantennas and convert infrared frequency electricity from AC to DC. Infrared frequencies range from 0.3 to 400 terahertz, although the article about the INL research did not state the exact frequencies under study.
A Unimolecular rectifier is a single organic molecule which functions as a rectifier. The technology is still in the experimental stage.