Alternating current

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Alternating Current (green curve). The horizontal axis measures time; the vertical, current or voltage.

In alternating current (AC, also ac) the movement of electric charge periodically reverses direction. In direct current (DC, also dc), the flow of electric charge is only in one direction.

The abbreviations AC and DC are often used to mean simply alternating and direct, as when they modify current or voltage.

AC is the form in which electric power is delivered to businesses and residences. The usual waveform of an AC power circuit is a sine wave. In certain applications, different waveforms are used, such as triangular or square waves. Audio and radio signals carried on electrical wires are also examples of alternating current. In these applications, an important goal is often the recovery of information encoded (or modulated) onto the AC signal.

Most students of electricity begin their study with what is known as direct current (DC), which is electricity flowing in a constant direction, and/or possessing a voltage with constant polarity. DC is the kind of electricity made by a battery (with definite positive and negative terminals), or the kind of charge generated by rubbing certain types of materials against each other.

As useful and as easy to understand as DC is, it is not the only “kind” of electricity in use. Certain sources of electricity (most notably, rotary electro-mechanical generators) naturally produce voltages alternating in polarity, reversing positive and negative over time. Either as a voltage switching polarity or as a current switching direction back and forth, this “kind” of electricity is known as Alternating Current (AC).