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Alternating current

Most students learning about electricity begin with what is known as direct current (DC), which is electricity flowing in a constant direction. DC is the kind of electricity made by a battery, with definite positive and negative terminals.

However, we have seen that the electricity produced by some generators alternates and is therefore known as alternating current (AC). The main advantage to AC is that the voltage can be changed using transformers. That means that the voltage can be stepped up at power stations to a very high voltage so that electrical energy can be transmitted along power lines at low current and therefore experience low energy loss due to heating. The voltage can then be stepped down for use in buildings and street lights.

Interesting fact

In South Africa alternating current is generated at a frequency of 50 Hz.

The circuit symbol for alternating current is:

Graphs of voltage against time and current against time for an AC circuit are shown in [link]

Graph of current or voltage in an AC circuit.

In an ideal DC circuit the current and voltage are constant. In an AC circuit the current and voltage vary with time. The value of the current or voltage at any specific time is called the instantaneous current or voltage and is calculated as follows:

i = I m a x sin ( 2 π f t + φ ) v = V m a x sin ( 2 π f t )

i is the instantaneous current. I m a x is the maximum current. v is the instantaneous voltage. V m a x is the maximum voltage. f is the frequency of the AC and t is the time at which the instantaneous current or voltage is being calculated.

The average value we use for AC is known as the root mean square (rms) average. This is defined as:

I r m s = I m a x 2 V r m s = V m a x 2

Since AC varies sinusoidally, with as much positive as negative, doing a straight average would get you zero for the average voltage. The rms value by-passes this problem.

Exercise - alternating current

  1. Explain the advantages of alternating current.
  2. Write expressions for the current and voltage in an AC circuit.
  3. Define the rms (root mean square) values for current and voltage for AC.
  4. What is the period of the AC generated in South Africa?
  5. If V m a x at a power station generator is 340 V AC, what is the mains supply (rms voltage) in our household?
  6. Draw a graph of voltage vs time and current vs time for an AC circuit.

Capacitance and inductance

Capacitors and inductors are found in many circuits. Capacitors store an electric field, and are used as temporary power sources as well as to minimize power fluctuations in major circuits. Inductors work in conjunction with capacitors for electrical signal processing. Here we explain the physics and applications of both.


You have learnt about capacitance and capacitors in Grade 11.

In this section you will learn about capacitance in an AC circuit. A capacitor in an AC circuit has reactance . Reactance in an AC circuit plays a similar role to resistance in a DC circuit. The reactance of a capacitor X C is defined as:

X C = 1 2 π f C

where C is the capacitance and f is the AC frequency.

If we examine the equation for the reactance of a capacitor, we see that the frequency is in the denominator. Therefore, when the frequency is low, the capacitive reactance is very high. This is why a capacitor blocks the flow of DC and low frequency AC because its reactance increases with decreasing frequency.

Questions & Answers

Is the normal force always 0
Mpilo Reply
no. newtons 3rd law states that if something exerts a force into something else it will experience that same magnitude of force but in the opposite direction. so the net force is equal to the force the object applies to the surface but in the opposite direction
define the term rate of reaction in word
David Reply
I think it a chemical process in which substance act mutually on each other.
how many bones are in the human body?
it's the rate at which the reactants are able to change to products
what is wave lengh
mama Reply
is the de broglie wavelength of the particle
calcium and magnesium, which one can displace aluminum from its compound?
Markia Reply
how is aluminum ion formed?
a substance that has the lower electronegativity which will be in this case the Ca -1.0 this is because the Ca would have a lower ionization energy -needs less energy to fill its outer most shell and therefore will cause a displacement of the Al
an Al ion would form when it has lost electrons and will normally be a cation -positively charged (3+)
molecules with the same molecular formula but different chain
Malaza Reply
what will be the answer
chain isomer
what does the newton's law says?
there are 3 newtons laws which are newton's law of universal gravitation, law of cooling, law of motion
Did the feather or leaf hit the ground first?
Shaloom Reply
both at the same time. air friction ignored
2 to 30 minut long distance race 20 km what's the avarage speed for the race
Jamilla Reply
what is meaning of covalent bonds
Lungani Reply
bonds that exists between non metal atoms. each atom contribute electron(s) which will form a bond joining the two atoms. electrons in the bond now belongs to both atoms
how do we name haloalkanes
Thobeka Reply
how do we name haloalkanes
what are examples of haloalkanes
haloalkanes are compounds that consist of the halogen group chlorine bromine flourine and so on like 2-bromobutan
give an example of calculating work
Nwabisa Reply
what is chain Isomer?
Christian Reply
chain isomer ar compounds with the same molecular formular but different chain length
Where does the functional group of ketone in carbons belong
Keletso Reply
how can I find the structural formulae and IUPAC names of hexane?
Matshidiso Reply
@Matshidiso identify your compound which is an alkane..the general formula for alkane is CnH2n+2... hex-6 substitute n with 6 implying that you'll have 6 carbons and 14 Hydrogens then you can draw your structural formula *NB* every carbon has to have 4 bonds
what are disadvantages of primary cells and advantage of secondary cells?
Thabang Reply

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Source:  OpenStax, Siyavula textbooks: grade 12 physical science. OpenStax CNX. Aug 03, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11244/1.2
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