Magnets, Magnetic Field, Electromagnet, Electromechanical Solenoid, Stator, Armature, DC Electric Motor and Automobile Starter Motor

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 1st, 2014

Technology 101

(Originally published April 18th, 2012)

Electric Current flowing through a Wire can Induce Magnetic Fields Similar to those Magnets Create

We’ve all played with magnets as children.  And even as children we’ve observed things.  If you placed a bar magnet on a table and approached it with another one in your hand one of two things would happen.  As the magnets approached each other the one on the table would either move towards the other magnet.  Or away from the other magnet.  That’s because all magnets are dipoles.  That is, they have two poles.  A north pole.  And a south pole.

These poles produce a magnetic field.  Outside of the magnet this field ‘flows’ from north to south.  Inside the magnet it ‘flows’ from south to north.  So imagine this magnetic force traveling through the magnet from south to north and right out of the north pole of the magnet.  Where it then bends around and heads back to the south pole.  Something most of us saw as children.  When we placed a piece of paper with iron filings over a bar magnet.  As we placed the paper over the magnet the iron filings moved.  They formed in lines.  That followed the magnetic field created by the magnetic dipole.  You can’t see the direction of the field but it only ‘flows’ in one direction.  As noted above.  If the north pole of one magnet is placed near the south pole of another the magnetic field ‘flows’ from the north pole of one magnet to the south pole of the other magnet.  Pulling them together.  If both north poles or both south poles are placed near each other they will repulse each other.  Because the magnetic field is ‘flowing’ out from each north pole.  Or into each south pole.  The magnets repulse each other because the magnetic field is trying to flow from north to south.  If one magnet was able to rotate this repulsion would rotate the magnet about 90 degrees.  To try and align one north pole with one south pole.  As the momentum pushed the magnet past the 90 degree point the force would reverse to attraction.  Rotating the magnet about another 90 degrees.  Where it will then stop.  Having aligned a north and a south pole.

It turns out this ability to move things with magnetic fields is very useful.  Both in linear motion.  And rotational motion.  Especially after we observed we could create magnetic fields by passing an electric current through a wire.  When you do a magnetic field circles the wire.  To determine which direction you simply use the right-hand rule.  Point your thumb in the direction of the current flow and wrap your fingers around the wire.  Your fingers point in the direction of the magnetic field.  Fascinating, yes?  Well, okay, maybe not.  But this is.  You can wrap that wire around a metal rod.  Creating a solenoid.  And all those induced magnetic fields add up.  The more coils the greater the magnetic field.  That ‘flows’ in the same direction in that metal rod.  Creating an electromagnet out of that metal rod.  If you ever saw a crane in a junk yard picking up scrap metal with a magnet this is what’s happening.  The crane operator turns on an electromagnet to attract and hold that scrap metal.  And turns off the electromagnet to release that scrap metal.

A DC Electric Motor is Basically a Fixed Magnet Interacting with a Rotating Magnet

If that metal rod was free to move you get something completely different.  For when you pass a current through that coiled wire the magnetic force it creates will move that metal rod.  If it’s not restrained it will fly right out of the coil.  Which is interesting to see but not very useful.  But the ability to move a restrained metal rod at the flick of a switch can be very useful.  For we can use a solenoid to convert electrical energy into linear mechanical movement.  As in a transducer.  An electromechanical solenoid.  That takes an electrical input to generate a mechanical output.  Which we use in many things.  Like in a high-speed conveyor system that sorts things.  Like a baggage handling system at an airport.  Or in an order fulfillment center.  Where things fly down a conveyor belt while diverter gates move to route things to their ultimate destination.  If the gate is not activated the product stays on the main belt.  When a gate is activated a gate moves across the path of the main conveyor belt and diverts the product to a new conveyor line or a drop off.  And the things that operate those gates are electromechanical solenoids.  Or transducers.  Things that convert an electrical input to a mechanical output.  To produce a linear mechanical motion.  To move that gate.

Solenoids are useful.  A lot of things work because of them.  But there is only so much this linear motion can do.  Basically alternating between two states.  Open and closed.   In or out.
On or off.  Again, useful.  But of limited use.  However, we can use these same principles and create rotational motion.  Which is far more useful.  Because we can make electric motors with the rotational motion created by magnetic fields.  The first electric motors were direct current (DC).  And included two basic parts.  The stator.  And the rotor (or armature).  The stator creates a fixed magnetic field.  With permanent magnates.  Or one created with current passing through coiled wiring.  The armature is made up of multiple coils.  Each coil insulated and separate from the next one.  When an electric current goes through one of these rotor coils it creates an electromagnet.

So a DC electric motor is basically a fixed magnet interacting with a rotating magnet.  Current passes to the rotor winding through brushes in contact with the armature.  Like closing a switch.  Current flows in through one brush.  And out through another.  When current goes through one of these rotor coils it creates an electromagnet.  With a north and south pole.  As this magnetic field interacts with the fixed magnetic field produced by the stator there are forces of attraction and repulsion.  As the ‘like’ poles repel each other.  And the ‘unlike’ poles attract each other.  Causing the armature to turn.  After it turns the brushes ‘disconnect’ from that rotor wiring and ‘connect’ to the next rotor winding in the armature.  Creating a new electromagnet.  And new forces of repulsion and attraction.  Causing the armature to continue to turn.  And so on to produce useful rotational mechanical motion.

An Automobile Starter Motor combines an Electromechanical Solenoid and a DC Electric Motor

Everyone who has ever driven a car is thoroughly familiar with electromechanical solenoids and DC electric motors.  Because unlike our forefathers who had to use hand-cranks to start their cars we don’t.  All we have to do is turn a key.  Or press a button.  And that internal combustion engine starts turning.  Fuel begins to flow to the cylinders.  And electricity flows to the spark plugs.  Igniting that compressed fuel-air mixture in the cylinder.  Bringing that engine to life.

So what starts this process?  An electromechanical solenoid.  And a DC motor.  Packaged together in an automobile starter motor.  The other components that make this work are the starter ring gear on the flywheel (mounted to the engine to smooth out the rotation created by the reciprocating pistons) and the car battery.  When you turn the ignition key current flows from the battery to the electromechanical solenoid.  This linear motion operates a lever that moves a drive pinion out of the starter (while compressing a spring inside the starter), engaging it with the starter ring gear.  Current also flows into a DC motor inside the starter.  As this motor spins it rotates the starter ring gear on the flywheel.  As combustion takes place in the cylinders the pistons start reciprocating, turning the crankshaft.  At which time you let go of the ignition key.  Stopping the current flow through both the solenoid and the DC motor.  The starter stops spinning.  And that compressed spring retracts the drive pinion from the starter ring gear.  All happening in a matter of seconds.  So quick and convenient you don’t give it a second thought.  You just put the car in gear and head out on the highway.  And enjoy the open road.  Wherever it may take you.  For getting there is half the fun.  Or more.

Electric motors have come a long way since our first DC motors.  Thanks to the advent of AC power distribution and polyphase motors.  Brought to us by the great Nikola Tesla.  While working for the great George Westinghouse.  Pretty much any electric motor today is based on a Tesla design.  But little has changed on the automotive starter motor.  Because batteries are still DC.  And before a car starts that’s all there is.  Once it’s running, though, a polyphase AC generator produces all the electricity used after that.  A bridge rectifier converts the three phase AC current into DC.  Providing all the electric power the car needs.  Even charging the battery.  So it’s ready to spin that starter motor the next time you get into your car.

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Leyden Jar, Electric Charge, Galvanic Cell, Voltaic Pile, Anions, Cations, Daniell Cell, Zinc-Carbon Battery and Alkaline Battery

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 25th, 2013

Technology 101

(Originally published December 19th, 2012)

Luigi Galvani made a Dead Frog’s Leg Twitch when he hit it with the Electric Discharge Shock from a Leyden Jar

The field of electricity took off with friction generators.  Dragging something across another substance to produce an electrical charge.  Like sliding out of your car on a dry winter day.  Producing an electric discharge shock just before your hand touches the metal door to close it.  Atoms in materials are electrically neutral.  There are an equal number of positive particles (protons) and negative particles (electrons).  Friction can transfer some of those electrons from one surface to another.  Leaving one surface with a net positive charge.  And the other with a net negative charge.  These charges equalize after that electric discharge shock.  Returning the atoms in these materials to an electrically neutral state.

Further exploration of static electric charge led to the development of the Leyden jar.  A precursor to the modern capacitor.  A glass jar with metal foil on the inside and outside of a glass bottle.  The foil sheets act as plates.  The glass as a dielectric.  An electrode attached to one plate received an electric charge from a friction generator.  The other plate was grounded.  The dielectric helped the plates hold an electric charge.  Benjamin Franklin did a lot of experiments with the Leyden jar.  He noted how multiple Leyden jars could hold a greater charge.  Commenting that it was like a battery of cannons.  Giving us the word battery for an electrical storage device.

Luigi Galvani made a dead frog’s leg twitch when he zapped it with the electric discharge shock from a Leyden jar.  Furthering his experiments Galvani found that he could reproduce the twitching by placing the frog’s leg between two different types of metals.  Creating a galvanic cell.  Which created an electric current.  Alessandro Volta recreated this experiment while substituting the frog tissue with cardboard soaked in salt water (an electrolyte).  Creating the voltaic cell.  Piling one voltaic cell onto another created a Voltaic Pile.  Or as we call it today, a battery.

A Daniell Cell created a Current by Stripping away Electrons from one Electrode and Recombining them on Another

What Galvani and Volta discovered was a chemical reaction that caused an electric current.  The Voltaic Pile, though, had a limited life.  To improve on it John F. Daniell added a second electrolyte.  Creating the Daniell Cell.  Which extended the life of a battery charge.  Allowing it to do useful work.  Becoming the first commercially successful battery.  Powering our first telegraphs and telephones.  Even finding their way into our homes operating our doorbells for a century or so before Nikola Tesla brought alternating current electric power to our homes.

The chemical reaction in a Daniell Cell created an electric current by stripping away electrons from one metal electrode in a solution (anode oxidation).  And recombining electrons onto another electrode of a different metal in a different solution (cathode reduction).  Each electrode is in an electrolyte solution.  In a copper-zinc Daniell Cell the anode is typically in a solution of zinc sulfate.  And the cathode is in a copper sulfate solution.  A salt bridge or porous membrane connects the different electrolytes.  When an electric load is connected across the ‘battery’ electrodes it completes the electrochemical system.

Each electrolyte contains ions.  Atoms with a net positive or negative charge.  Positive ions are cations.  Negative ions are anions.  The cathode attracts cations.  Where they combine with free electrons to return to a neutral state.  The anode attracts anions.   Where they give up their extra electrons to return to a neutral state.  This chemical activity dissolves the zinc electrode.  And deposits copper on the copper electrode.  (This electrolysis is the basis for the metal plating industry.)  It is the dissolving of the anode that gives up electrons that travel from one electrode through the electric load to the other electrode.  Doing work for us.  By lighting our flashlights.  Or powering our portable radio.  When the anode dissolves to the point that it cannot give up anymore electrons the chemical reaction stops.  And we have to replace our batteries.

An Alkaline Battery will produce more Useable Power and have a longer Shelf Life than a Zinc-Carbon Battery

Of course, the zinc-carbon batteries we use for our flashlights and radios are not wet cells.  They’re dry cells.  Instead of an electrolyte solution the common battery is made up of dry components.  The zinc anode is the battery casing.  Just inside the battery zinc casing is a paper layer impregnated with a moist paste of acidic ammonium chloride.  This separates the zinc can from a mixture of graphite powder and manganese (IV) oxide (pyrolusite).  In the center of the battery is a carbon rod.  The zinc casing is the negative electrode (anode) and the carbon rod is the positive electrode (the cathode).  The chemical reactions are the
same as they are with the wet cell.  The zinc casing (the anode) becomes thinner over time.  When holes begin to appear the battery will leak creating a sticky mess.  As you no doubt experienced when taking an old set of batteries out of a flashlight that hasn’t been used in years.

An alkaline battery looks similar to a zinc-carbon battery.  But there are many differences.  Instead of an acidic ammonium chloride electrolyte an alkaline battery uses an alkaline potassium hydroxide electrolyte.  The little nub (positive terminal) on top of the battery does not connect to a carbon rod in the center of the battery.  It connects to the outer casing.  Inside this casing is a mixture of graphite powder and manganese (IV) oxide (pyrolusite).  Then a barrier to keep the anode and cathode materials from coming into contact with each other.  But lets ions pass through.  On the other side of the barrier is the anode.  A gel of the alkaline potassium hydroxide electrolyte containing a dispersion of zinc powder.  In the middle of the battery is a metal rod that acts as a current pickup that connects to the bottom of the battery (the negative terminal).

Alkaline batteries are the most popular batteries today.  Because they have a higher energy density than a zinc-carbon battery.  Meaning that an alkaline battery will produce more useable power than a comparable sized zinc-carbon battery.  And they have a longer shelf life.  But with these benefits comes costs.  They can leak a caustic potassium hydroxide.  An irritant to your eyes and skin.  As well as your respiratory system.  As they age they can produce hydrogen gas.  Which can rupture the casing.  If a battery leaks potassium carbonate (a crystalline structure) can grow.  If this crystalline structure reaches the copper tracks of a circuit board it will oxidize the copper and metallic components.  Damaging electronic devices.  But the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.  As about 80% of all batteries sold in the U.S. are alkaline batteries.

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Leyden Jar, Electric Charge, Galvanic Cell, Voltaic Pile, Anions, Cations, Daniell Cell, Zinc-Carbon Battery and Alkaline Battery

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 2nd, 2013

Technology 101

(Originally published December 19th, 2012)

Luigi Galvani made a Dead Frog’s Leg Twitch when he hit it with the Electric Discharge Shock from a Leyden Jar

The field of electricity took off with friction generators.  Dragging something across another substance to produce an electrical charge.  Like sliding out of your car on a dry winter day.  Producing an electric discharge shock just before your hand touches the metal door to close it.  Atoms in materials are electrically neutral.  There are an equal number of positive particles (protons) and negative particles (electrons).  Friction can transfer some of those electrons from one surface to another.  Leaving one surface with a net positive charge.  And the other with a net negative charge.  These charges equalize after that electric discharge shock.  Returning the atoms in these materials to an electrically neutral state.

Further exploration of static electric charge led to the development of the Leyden jar.  A precursor to the modern capacitor.  A glass jar with metal foil on the inside and outside of a glass bottle.  The foil sheets act as plates.  The glass as a dielectric.  An electrode attached to one plate received an electric charge from a friction generator.  The other plate was grounded.  The dielectric helped the plates hold an electric charge.  Benjamin Franklin did a lot of experiments with the Leyden jar.  He noted how multiple Leyden jars could hold a greater charge.  Commenting that it was like a battery of cannons.  Giving us the word battery for an electrical storage device.

Luigi Galvani made a dead frog’s leg twitch when he zapped it with the electric discharge shock from a Leyden jar.  Furthering his experiments Galvani found that he could reproduce the twitching by placing the frog’s leg between two different types of metals.  Creating a galvanic cell.  Which created an electric current.  Alessandro Volta recreated this experiment while substituting the frog tissue with cardboard soaked in salt water (an electrolyte).  Creating the voltaic cell.  Piling one voltaic cell onto another created a Voltaic Pile.  Or as we call it today, a battery.

A Daniell Cell created a Current by Stripping away Electrons from one Electrode and Recombining them on Another

What Galvani and Volta discovered was a chemical reaction that caused an electric current.  The Voltaic Pile, though, had a limited life.  To improve on it John F. Daniell added a second electrolyte.  Creating the Daniell Cell.  Which extended the life of a battery charge.  Allowing it to do useful work.  Becoming the first commercially successful battery.  Powering our first telegraphs and telephones.  Even finding their way into our homes operating our doorbells for a century or so before Nikola Tesla brought alternating current electric power to our homes.

The chemical reaction in a Daniell Cell created an electric current by stripping away electrons from one metal electrode in a solution (anode oxidation).  And recombining electrons onto another electrode of a different metal in a different solution (cathode reduction).  Each electrode is in an electrolyte solution.  In a copper-zinc Daniell Cell the anode is typically in a solution of zinc sulfate.  And the cathode is in a copper sulfate solution.  A salt bridge or porous membrane connects the different electrolytes.  When an electric load is connected across the ‘battery’ electrodes it completes the electrochemical system.

Each electrolyte contains ions.  Atoms with a net positive or negative charge.  Positive ions are cations.  Negative ions are anions.  The cathode attracts cations.  Where they combine with free electrons to return to a neutral state.  The anode attracts anions.   Where they give up their extra electrons to return to a neutral state.  This chemical activity dissolves the zinc electrode.  And deposits copper on the copper electrode.  (This electrolysis is the basis for the metal plating industry.)  It is the dissolving of the anode that gives up electrons that travel from one electrode through the electric load to the other electrode.  Doing work for us.  By lighting our flashlights.  Or powering our portable radio.  When the anode dissolves to the point that it cannot give up anymore electrons the chemical reaction stops.  And we have to replace our batteries.

An Alkaline Battery will produce more Useable Power and have a longer Shelf Life than a Zinc-Carbon Battery

Of course, the zinc-carbon batteries we use for our flashlights and radios are not wet cells.  They’re dry cells.  Instead of an electrolyte solution the common battery is made up of dry components.  The zinc anode is the battery casing.  Just inside the battery zinc casing is a paper layer impregnated with a moist paste of acidic ammonium chloride.  This separates the zinc can from a mixture of graphite powder and manganese (IV) oxide (pyrolusite).  In the center of the battery is a carbon rod.  The zinc casing is the negative electrode (anode) and the carbon rod is the positive electrode (the cathode).  The chemical reactions are the
same as they are with the wet cell.  The zinc casing (the anode) becomes thinner over time.  When holes begin to appear the battery will leak creating a sticky mess.  As you no doubt experienced when taking an old set of batteries out of a flashlight that hasn’t been used in years.

An alkaline battery looks similar to a zinc-carbon battery.  But there are many differences.  Instead of an acidic ammonium chloride electrolyte an alkaline battery uses an alkaline potassium hydroxide electrolyte.  The little nub (positive terminal) on top of the battery does not connect to a carbon rod in the center of the battery.  It connects to the outer casing.  Inside this casing is a mixture of graphite powder and manganese (IV) oxide (pyrolusite).  Then a barrier to keep the anode and cathode materials from coming into contact with each other.  But lets ions pass through.  On the other side of the barrier is the anode.  A gel of the alkaline potassium hydroxide electrolyte containing a dispersion of zinc powder.  In the middle of the battery is a metal rod that acts as a current pickup that connects to the bottom of the battery (the negative terminal).

Alkaline batteries are the most popular batteries today.  Because they have a higher energy density than a zinc-carbon battery.  Meaning that an alkaline battery will produce more useable power than a comparable sized zinc-carbon battery.  And they have a longer shelf life.  But with these benefits comes costs.  They can leak a caustic potassium hydroxide.  An irritant to your eyes and skin.  As well as your respiratory system.  As they age they can produce hydrogen gas.  Which can rupture the casing.  If a battery leaks potassium carbonate (a crystalline structure) can grow.  If this crystalline structure reaches the copper tracks of a circuit board it will oxidize the copper and metallic components.  Damaging electronic devices.  But the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.  As about 80% of all batteries sold in the U.S. are alkaline batteries.

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Lead–Acid Battery, Nickel–Cadmium Battery (NiCd), Nickel–Metal Hydride Battery (NiMH) and Lithium-Ion Battery

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 9th, 2013

Technology 101

The Chemical Reactions in a Zinc-Carbon Battery are One Way

A battery uses chemistry to make electricity.  An electric current is a flow of electrons that can do useful work.  The chemical reaction inside a battery creates that flow of electrons to produce an electric current.  In a common zinc-carbon battery, for example, a zinc electrode dissolves in an electrolyte.  As it does atoms release free electrons and become positive ions (cations) in the electrolyte.  Giving this solution a positive charge.  At the same time a carbon electrode is in a different electrolyte solution.  One filled with negative ions (anions).  Giving this solution a negative charge.

With no electrical load attached to the battery these electrodes and electrolytes are in equilibrium.  When we attach an external circuit across the battery terminals they provide a pathway for those free electrons.  As the free electrons travel through the external circuit the cations and anions travel through a porous membrane from one electrolyte to the other.  The positive cations (atoms with room for an additional electron) flow towards the carbon electrode.  And combine with the free electrons on the surface of the carbon electrode and become electrically neutral.

We can stop this chemical reaction.  Say by turning a flashlight or a portable radio off.  But we can’t reverse it.  This is a one-way chemical reaction that eventually dissolves away the anode.  A Zinc-carbon battery is inexpensive.  The amount of battery life we get out of it more than offsets the price.  And they’re easy to change.  But sometimes an application calls for a battery that isn’t easy to change.  Like a car battery.  Imagine having to change that a few times a year when it ran down.  No, that would be far too inconvenient.  Difficult.  And costly.  So we don’t.  Instead, we recharge car batteries.

The Chemical Reactions in a Lead-Acid Battery are Reversible allowing these batteries to be Recharged

A car battery is a lead-acid battery.  Each cell of a lead-acid battery has a positive electrode (i.e., plate) of lead dioxide.  A negative electrode of lead.  And an electrolyte of a sulfuric acid-water solution containing sulfate ions.  The lead chemically reacts with the sulfate ions to produce lead sulfate on the negative electrode while producing positive ions.  The lead dioxide chemically reacts with the sulfuric acid to produce lead sulfate on the positive electrode while giving up free electrons.

When we attach an external circuit to the battery (such as starting a car) the free electrons leave the positive electrode, travel through the external circuit and return to the battery.  Where they combine with those positive ions.  Lead sulfate forms on both electrodes.  These reactions consume the sulfuric acid in the electrolyte and leave mostly water behind.  Reducing the available charge in the battery.  But unlike zinc-carbon batteries these chemical reactions are reversible.  After a car starts, for example, the alternator provides the electric power needs of the car.  While applying a charging voltage to the battery.  This voltage will ionize the water in the battery which will break down the lead sulfate.  Deposit lead oxide back onto the positive electrode.  And deposit lead back onto the negative electrode.  Giving you a charged battery for the next time you need to start your engine.

A lead acid battery can provide a strong current to spin an internal combustion engine.  Which takes a lot of energy to fight the compression of the pistons.  And it can work in some very cold temperatures.  But it’s big and heavy.  And works best in things bigger and heavier.  Like cars.  Trucks.  Trains.  And ships.  But they don’t work well in things that are smaller and lighter.  Like cordless power tools.  Cell phones.  And laptop computers.  Things where battery weight is an important issue.  Requiring an alternative to the lead-acid battery.  One of the earliest rechargeable battery alternatives was the nickel–cadmium battery.  Or NiCad battery.

The Chemical Reactions produce Heat in a Lithium Ion Battery and can Catch Fire or Explode

The nickel–cadmium battery works like every other battery.  With chemical reactions that produce electrons.  And chemical reactions that consumes electrons.  The NiCad battery uses nickel (III) oxide-hydroxide for the positive electrode.  Cadmium for the negative electrode.  And potassium hydroxide as the electrolyte.  A NiCad battery may look like a zinc-carbon battery.  But the electrodes are different.  Instead of the zinc canister and a carbon rod the electrodes in a NiCad battery are long strips.  One is placed onto the other with a separator in between.  Then rolled up like a jelly-roll.

NiCad batteries have a memory effect.  If they were recharged without being fully discharged the battery ‘remembers’ the amount of charge it took to recharge the partially discharged battery.  So even if you fully discharged the battery it would only recharge it as if you partially discharged it.  Reducing the battery capacity over time.  The nickel–metal hydride battery (NiMH) eliminated this problem.  And improved on the NiCad.  Giving it 2-3 times the capacity of a NiCad battery.  NiCad and NiMH batteries are very similar.  They use the same positive electrode.  But instead of the highly toxic cadmium NiMH batteries use a mixture of a rare earth metal mixed with another metal.

Today battery technology has evolved into the lithium-ion battery.  Where the positive electrode is a compound containing lithium.  The negative electrode is typically graphite.  The electrolyte is a lithium salt.  Lithium ions travel between the electrodes through the electrolyte.  And electrons flow between the electrodes via the external circuit.  They have a greater capacity, no memory effect and hold their charge for a long time when not being used.  Making the lithium ion battery ideal for cell phones and other consumer electronics.  These chemical reactions produce heat, though.  And can catch fire or explode.  Trying to prevent this from happening increases their manufacturing costs, making them expensive batteries.  So expensive that people will buy cheaper generic brands.  Cheaper because they are not built to the same quality standards of the more expensive ones.  And are more prone to catching fire or exploding.

Something to think about when you feel the heat of your cell phone after a long conversation.  Only use a battery recommended by the manufacturer.  Even if it costs a small fortune.  It may be expensive.  But probably not as expensive as your monthly airtime charges.  So don’t skimp when it comes to lithium ion batteries.  For those cheap ones do have a tendency to catch fire.  Or explode.

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Leyden Jar, Electric Charge, Galvanic Cell, Voltaic Pile, Anions, Cations, Daniell Cell, Zinc-Carbon Battery and Alkaline Battery

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 19th, 2012

Technology 101

Luigi Galvani made a Dead Frog’s Leg Twitch when he hit it with the Electric Discharge Shock from a Leyden Jar

The field of electricity took off with friction generators.  Dragging something across another substance to produce an electrical charge.  Like sliding out of your car on a dry winter day.  Producing an electric discharge shock just before your hand touches the metal door to close it.  Atoms in materials are electrically neutral.  There are an equal number of positive particles (protons) and negative particles (electrons).  Friction can transfer some of those electrons from one surface to another.  Leaving one surface with a net positive charge.  And the other with a net negative charge.  These charges equalize after that electric discharge shock.  Returning the atoms in these materials to an electrically neutral state.

Further exploration of static electric charge led to the development of the Leyden jar.  A precursor to the modern capacitor.  A glass jar with metal foil on the inside and outside of a glass bottle.  The foil sheets act as plates.  The glass as a dielectric.  An electrode attached to one plate received an electric charge from a friction generator.  The other plate was grounded.  The dielectric helped the plates hold an electric charge.  Benjamin Franklin did a lot of experiments with the Leyden jar.  He noted how multiple Leyden jars could hold a greater charge.  Commenting that it was like a battery of cannons.  Giving us the word battery for an electrical storage device.

Luigi Galvani made a dead frog’s leg twitch when he zapped it with the electric discharge shock from a Leyden jar.  Furthering his experiments Galvani found that he could reproduce the twitching by placing the frog’s leg between two different types of metals.  Creating a galvanic cell.  Which created an electric current.  Alessandro Volta recreated this experiment while substituting the frog tissue with cardboard soaked in salt water (an electrolyte).  Creating the voltaic cell.  Piling one voltaic cell onto another created a Voltaic Pile.  Or as we call it today, a battery.

A Daniell Cell created a Current by Stripping away Electrons from one Electrode and Recombining them on Another

What Galvani and Volta discovered was a chemical reaction that caused an electric current.  The Voltaic Pile, though, had a limited life.  To improve on it John F. Daniell added a second electrolyte.  Creating the Daniell Cell.  Which extended the life of a battery charge.  Allowing it to do useful work.  Becoming the first commercially successful battery.  Powering our first telegraphs and telephones.  Even finding their way into our homes operating our doorbells for a century or so before Nikola Tesla brought alternating current electric power to our homes.

The chemical reaction in a Daniell Cell created an electric current by stripping away electrons from one metal electrode in a solution (anode oxidation).  And recombining electrons onto another electrode of a different metal in a different solution (cathode reduction).  Each electrode is in an electrolyte solution.  In a copper-zinc Daniell Cell the anode is typically in a solution of zinc sulfate.  And the cathode is in a copper sulfate solution.  A salt bridge or porous membrane connects the different electrolytes.  When an electric load is connected across the ‘battery’ electrodes it completes the electrochemical system.

Each electrolyte contains ions.  Atoms with a net positive or negative charge.  Positive ions are cations.  Negative ions are anions.  The cathode attracts cations.  Where they combine with free electrons to return to a neutral state.  The anode attracts anions.   Where they give up their extra electrons to return to a neutral state.  This chemical activity dissolves the zinc electrode.  And deposits copper on the copper electrode.  (This electrolysis is the basis for the metal plating industry.)  It is the dissolving of the anode that gives up electrons that travel from one electrode through the electric load to the other electrode.  Doing work for us.  By lighting our flashlights.  Or powering our portable radio.  When the anode dissolves to the point that it cannot give up anymore electrons the chemical reaction stops.  And we have to replace our batteries.

An Alkaline Battery will produce more Useable Power and have a longer Shelf Life than a Zinc-Carbon Battery

Of course, the zinc-carbon batteries we use for our flashlights and radios are not wet cells.  They’re dry cells.  Instead of an electrolyte solution the common battery is made up of dry components.  The zinc anode is the battery casing.  Just inside the battery zinc casing is a paper layer impregnated with a moist paste of acidic ammonium chloride.  This separates the zinc can from a mixture of graphite powder and manganese (IV) oxide (pyrolusite).  In the center of the battery is a carbon rod.  The zinc casing is the negative electrode (anode) and the carbon rod is the positive electrode (the cathode).  The chemical reactions are the same as they are with the wet cell.  The zinc casing (the anode) becomes thinner over time.  When holes begin to appear the battery will leak creating a sticky mess.  As you no doubt experienced when taking an old set of batteries out of a flashlight that hasn’t been used in years.

An alkaline battery looks similar to a zinc-carbon battery.  But there are many differences.  Instead of an acidic ammonium chloride electrolyte an alkaline battery uses an alkaline potassium hydroxide electrolyte.  The little nub (positive terminal) on top of the battery does not connect to a carbon rod in the center of the battery.  It connects to the outer casing.  Inside this casing is a mixture of graphite powder and manganese (IV) oxide (pyrolusite).  Then a barrier to keep the anode and cathode materials from coming into contact with each other.  But lets ions pass through.  On the other side of the barrier is the anode.  A gel of the alkaline potassium hydroxide electrolyte containing a dispersion of zinc powder.  In the middle of the battery is a metal rod that acts as a current pickup that connects to the bottom of the battery (the negative terminal).

Alkaline batteries are the most popular batteries today.  Because they have a higher energy density than a zinc-carbon battery.  Meaning that an alkaline battery will produce more useable power than a comparable sized zinc-carbon battery.  And they have a longer shelf life.  But with these benefits comes costs.  They can leak a caustic potassium hydroxide.  An irritant to your eyes and skin.  As well as your respiratory system.  As they age they can produce hydrogen gas.  Which can rupture the casing.  If a battery leaks potassium carbonate (a crystalline structure) can grow.  If this crystalline structure reaches the copper tracks of a circuit board it will oxidize the copper and metallic components.  Damaging electronic devices.  But the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.  As about 80% of all batteries sold in the U.S. are alkaline batteries.

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Neutrons, Electrons, Electric Current, Nuclear Power, Nuclear Chain Reaction, Residual Decay Heat and Pressurized Water Reactor

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 18th, 2012

Technology 101

We create about Half of our Electric Power by Burning Coal to Boil Water into Steam

An atom consists of a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons.  And electrons orbiting around the nucleus.  Protons have a positive charge.  Electrons have a negative charge.  Neutrons have a neutral charge.  In chemistry and electricity the electrons are key.  When different atoms come together they form chemical bonds.  By sharing some of those electrons orbiting their nuclei.  In metals free electrons roam around the metal lattice of the crystalline solid they’re in.  If we apply a voltage across this metal these free electrons begin to flow.  Creating an electric current.  The greater the voltage the greater the current.  And the greater the work it can do.  It can power a television set.  Keep your food from spoiling in a refrigerator.  Even make your summers comfortable by running your air conditioner. 

We use electric power to do work for us.  Power is the product of voltage and current.  The higher each is the more work this power can do for us.  In a direct current (DC) system the free electrons have to make a complete path from the power source (an electric generator) through the wiring to the work load and back again to the power source.  But generating the power at the voltage of the workload required high currents.  Thick wires.  And a lot of power plants because you could only make wires so thick before they were too heavy to work with.  Alternating current (AC) solved this problem.  By using transformers at each end of the distribution path to step up and then step down the voltage.  Allowing us to transmit lower currents at higher voltages which required thinner wires.  And AC didn’t need to return to the power plant.  It was more like a steam locomotive that converted the back and forth motion of the steam engine into rotational power.  AC power plants generated a back and forth current in the wires.  And electrical loads are able to take this back and forth motion and convert it into useful electrical power.

Even though AC power allows us to transmit lower currents we still need to move a lot of these free electrons.  And we do this with massive electric generators.  Where another power source spins these generators.  This generator spins an electric field through another set of windings to induce an electrical current.  Sort of how transformers work.  This electrical current goes out to the switchyard.  And on to our homes.  Simple, really.  The difficult part is creating that rotational motion to spin the generator.  We create about half of our electric power by burning coal to boil water into steam.  This steam expands against the vanes of a steam turbine causing it to spin.  But that’s not the only heat engine we use to make steam.

To Shut Down a Nuclear Reactor takes the Full Insertion of the Control Rods and Continuously Pumping Cooling Water through the Core

We use another part of the atom to generate heat.  Which boils water into steam.  That we use to spin a steam turbine.  The neutron.  Nuclear power plants use uranium for fuel.  It is the heaviest naturally occurring element.  The density of its nucleus determines an element’s weight.  The more protons and neutrons in it the heavier it is.  Without getting into too much physics we basically get heat when we bombard these heavy nuclei with neutrons.  When a nucleus splits apart it throws off a few spare neutrons which can split other nuclei.  And so on.  Creating a nuclear chain reaction.  It’s the actual splitting of these nuclei that generates heat.  And from there it’s just boiling water into steam to spin a steam turbine coupled to a generator.

Continuous atom splitting creates a lot of heat.  So much heat that it can melt down the core.  Which would be a bad thing.  So we move an array of neutron absorbers into and out of the core to control this chain reaction.  So in the core of a nuclear reactor we have uranium fuel pellets loaded into vertical fuel rods.  There are spaces in between these fuel rods for control rods (made out of carbon or boron) to move in and out of the core.  When we fully insert the control rods they will shut down the nuclear chain reaction by absorbing those free neutrons.  However there is a lot of residual heat (i.e., decay heat) that can cause the core to melt if we don’t remove it with continuous cooling water pumped through the core. 

So to shut down a nuclear reactor it takes both the full insertion of the control rods.  And continuously pumping cooling water through the core for days after shutting down the reactor.  Even spent fuel rods have to spend a decade or two in a spent fuel pool.  To dissipate this residual decay heat.  (This residual decay heat caused the trouble at Fukushima in Japan after their earthquake/tsunami.  The reactor survived the earthquake.  But the tsunami submerged the electrical gear that powered the cooling pumps.  Preventing them from cooling the core to remove this residual decay heat.  Leading to the partial core meltdowns.)

Nuclear Power is one of the most Reliable and Cleanest Sources of Power that leaves no Carbon Footprint

There is more than one nuclear reactor design.  But more than half in the U.S. are the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) type.  It’s also the kind they had at Three Mile Island.  Which saw America’s worst nuclear accident.  The PWR is the classic nuclear power plant that all people fear.  The tall hyperboloid cooling towers.  And the short cylindrical containment buildings with a dome on top housing the reactor.  The reactor itself is inside a humongous steel pressure vessel.  For pressure is key in a PWR.  The cooling water of the reactor is under very high pressure.  Keeping the water from boiling even though it reaches temperatures as high as 600 degrees Fahrenheit (water boils into steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit under normal atmospheric pressure).  This is the primary loop.

The superheated water in the primary loop then flows through a heat exchanger.  Where it heats water in another loop of pumped water.  The secondary loop.  The hot water in the primary loop boils the water in the secondary loop into steam.  As it boils the water in the secondary loop it loses some of its own heat.  So it can return to the reactor core to remove more of its heat.  To prevent it from overheating.  The steam in the secondary loop drives the steam turbine.  The steam then flows from the turbine to a condenser and changes back into water.  The cooling water for the condenser is what goes to the cooling tower.  Making those scary looking cooling towers the least dangerous part of the power plant.

The PWR is one of the safest nuclear reactors.  The primary cooling loop is the only loop exposed to radiation.  The problem at Three Mile Island resulted from a stuck pressure relief valve.  That opened to vent high pressure during an event that caused the control rods to drop in and shut down the nuclear chain reaction.  So while they stopped the chain reaction the residual decay heat continued to cook the core.  But there was no feedback from the valve to the control room showing that it was still open after everyone thought it was closed.  So as cooling water entered the core it just boiled away.  Uncovering the core.  And causing part of it to melt.  Other problems with valves and gages did not identify this problem.  As some of the fuel melted it reacted with the steam producing hydrogen gas.  Fearing an explosion they vented some of this radioactive gas into the atmosphere.  But not much.  But it was enough to effectively shut down the U.S. nuclear power industry. 

A pity, really.  For if we had pursued nuclear power these past decades we may have found ways to make it safer.  Neither wind power nor solar power is a practical substitution for fossil-fuel generated electricity.  Yet we pour billions into these industries in hopes that we can advance them to a point when they can be more than a novelty.  But we have turned away from one of the most reliable and cleanest sources of power (when things work properly).  Using neutrons to move electrons.  Taking complete control of the atom to our make our lives better.  And to keep our environment clean.  And cool.  For there is no carbon footprint with nuclear power.

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Magnets, Magnetic Field, Electromagnet, Electromechanical Solenoid, Stator, Armature, DC Electric Motor and Automobile Starter Motor

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 18th, 2012

Technology 101

Electric Current flowing through a Wire can Induce Magnetic Fields Similar to those Magnets Create

We’ve all played with magnets as children.  And even as children we’ve observed things.  If you placed a bar magnet on a table and approached it with another one in your hand one of two things would happen.  As the magnets approached each other the one on the table would either move towards the other magnet.  Or away from the other magnet.  That’s because all magnets are dipoles.  That is, they have two poles.  A north pole.  And a south pole. 

These poles produce a magnetic field.  Outside of the magnet this field ‘flows’ from north to south.  Inside the magnet it ‘flows’ from south to north.  So imagine this magnetic force traveling through the magnet from south to north and right out of the north pole of the magnet.  Where it then bends around and heads back to the south pole.  Something most of us saw as children.  When we placed a piece of paper with iron filings over a bar magnet.  As we placed the paper over the magnet the iron filings moved.  They formed in lines.  That followed the magnetic field created by the magnetic dipole.  You can’t see the direction of the field but it only ‘flows’ in one direction.  As noted above.  If the north pole of one magnet is placed near the south pole of another the magnetic field ‘flows’ from the north pole of one magnet to the south pole of the other magnet.  Pulling them together.  If both north poles or both south poles are placed near each other they will repulse each other.  Because the magnetic field is ‘flowing’ out from each north pole.  Or into each south pole.  The magnets repulse each other because the magnetic field is trying to flow from north to south.  If one magnet was able to rotate this repulsion would rotate the magnet about 90 degrees.  To try and align one north pole with one south pole.  As the momentum pushed the magnet past the 90 degree point the force would reverse to attraction.  Rotating the magnet about another 90 degrees.  Where it will then stop.  Having aligned a north and a south pole. 

It turns out this ability to move things with magnetic fields is very useful.  Both in linear motion.  And rotational motion.  Especially after we observed we could create magnetic fields by passing an electric current through a wire.  When you do a magnetic field circles the wire.  To determine which direction you simply use the right-hand rule.  Point your thumb in the direction of the current flow and wrap your fingers around the wire.  Your fingers point in the direction of the magnetic field.  Fascinating, yes?  Well, okay, maybe not.  But this is.  You can wrap that wire around a metal rod.  Creating a solenoid.  And all those induced magnetic fields add up.  The more coils the greater the magnetic field.  That ‘flows’ in the same direction in that metal rod.  Creating an electromagnet out of that metal rod.  If you ever saw a crane in a junk yard picking up scrap metal with a magnet this is what’s happening.  The crane operator turns on an electromagnet to attract and hold that scrap metal.  And turns off the electromagnet to release that scrap metal.

A DC Electric Motor is Basically a Fixed Magnet Interacting with a Rotating Magnet

If that metal rod was free to move you get something completely different.  For when you pass a current through that coiled wire the magnetic force it creates will move that metal rod.  If it’s not restrained it will fly right out of the coil.  Which is interesting to see but not very useful.  But the ability to move a restrained metal rod at the flick of a switch can be very useful.  For we can use a solenoid to convert electrical energy into linear mechanical movement.  As in a transducer.  An electromechanical solenoid.  That takes an electrical input to generate a mechanical output.  Which we use in many things.  Like in a high-speed conveyor system that sorts things.  Like a baggage handling system at an airport.  Or in an order fulfillment center.  Where things fly down a conveyor belt while diverter gates move to route things to their ultimate destination.  If the gate is not activated the product stays on the main belt.  When a gate is activated a gate moves across the path of the main conveyor belt and diverts the product to a new conveyor line or a drop off.  And the things that operate those gates are electromechanical solenoids.  Or transducers.  Things that convert an electrical input to a mechanical output.  To produce a linear mechanical motion.  To move that gate.

Solenoids are useful.  A lot of things work because of them.  But there is only so much this linear motion can do.  Basically alternating between two states.  Open and closed.   In or out.  On or off.  Again, useful.  But of limited use.  However, we can use these same principles and create rotational motion.  Which is far more useful.  Because we can make electric motors with the rotational motion created by magnetic fields.  The first electric motors were direct current (DC).  And included two basic parts.  The stator.  And the rotor (or armature).  The stator creates a fixed magnetic field.  With permanent magnates.  Or one created with current passing through coiled wiring.  The armature is made up of multiple coils.  Each coil insulated and separate from the next one.  When an electric current goes through one of these rotor coils it creates an electromagnet. 

So a DC electric motor is basically a fixed magnet interacting with a rotating magnet.  Current passes to the rotor winding through brushes in contact with the armature.  Like closing a switch.  Current flows in through one brush.  And out through another.  When current goes through one of these rotor coils it creates an electromagnet.  With a north and south pole.  As this magnetic field interacts with the fixed magnetic field produced by the stator there are forces of attraction and repulsion.  As the ‘like’ poles repel each other.  And the ‘unlike’ poles attract each other.  Causing the armature to turn.  After it turns the brushes ‘disconnect’ from that rotor wiring and ‘connect’ to the next rotor winding in the armature.  Creating a new electromagnet.  And new forces of repulsion and attraction.  Causing the armature to continue to turn.  And so on to produce useful rotational mechanical motion.

An Automobile Starter Motor combines an Electromechanical Solenoid and a DC Electric Motor

Everyone who has ever driven a car is thoroughly familiar with electromechanical solenoids and DC electric motors.  Because unlike our forefathers who had to use hand-cranks to start their cars we don’t.  All we have to do is turn a key.  Or press a button.  And that internal combustion engine starts turning.  Fuel begins to flow to the cylinders.  And electricity flows to the spark plugs.  Igniting that compressed fuel-air mixture in the cylinder.  Bringing that engine to life.

So what starts this process?  An electromechanical solenoid.  And a DC motor.  Packaged together in an automobile starter motor.  The other components that make this work are the starter ring gear on the flywheel (mounted to the engine to smooth out the rotation created by the reciprocating pistons) and the car battery.  When you turn the ignition key current flows from the battery to the electromechanical solenoid.  This linear motion operates a lever that moves a drive pinion out of the starter (while compressing a spring inside the starter), engaging it with the starter ring gear.  Current also flows into a DC motor inside the starter.  As this motor spins it rotates the starter ring gear on the flywheel.  As combustion takes place in the cylinders the pistons start reciprocating, turning the crankshaft.  At which time you let go of the ignition key.  Stopping the current flow through both the solenoid and the DC motor.  The starter stops spinning.  And that compressed spring retracts the drive pinion from the starter ring gear.  All happening in a matter of seconds.  So quick and convenient you don’t give it a second thought.  You just put the car in gear and head out on the highway.  And enjoy the open road.  Wherever it may take you.  For getting there is half the fun.  Or more.

Electric motors have come a long way since our first DC motors.  Thanks to the advent of AC power distribution and polyphase motors.  Brought to us by the great Nikola Tesla.  While working for the great George Westinghouse.  Pretty much any electric motor today is based on a Tesla design.  But little has changed on the automotive starter motor.  Because batteries are still DC.  And before a car starts that’s all there is.  Once it’s running, though, a polyphase AC generator produces all the electricity used after that.  A bridge rectifier converts the three phase AC current into DC.  Providing all the electric power the car needs.  Even charging the battery.  So it’s ready to spin that starter motor the next time you get into your car.

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