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Tesla Coil Impedance

Dr. Gary L. JohnsonProfessor EmeritusElectrical and Computer Engineering DepartmentKansas State Universitygjohnson@ksu.edu

Abstract

The input impedance of a Tesla coil operated as an ‘ex-tra’ coil, or as a quarter-wave antenna above a ground plane, is given here. Eﬀects of coil form, wire size, wireinsulation, and humidity are discussed.

1. Introduction

A classical Tesla coil contains two stages of voltageincrease. The ﬁrst is a conventional iron core trans-former that steps up the available line voltage to avoltage in the range of 12 to 50 kV, 60 Hz. The secondis a resonant air core transformer (the Tesla coil itself)which steps up the voltage to the range of 200 kV to1 MV. The high voltage output is at a frequency muchhigher than 60 Hz, perhaps 500 kHz for the small unitsand 80 kHz (or less) for the very large units.The lumped circuit model for the classical Tesla coilis shown in Fig. 1. The primary capacitor

C

1

is a lowloss ac capacitor, rated at perhaps 20 kV, and oftenmade from mica or polyethylene. The primary coil

L

1

is usually made of 4 to 15 turns for the small coils and1 to 5 turns for the large coils. The secondary coil

L

2

consists of perhaps 50 to 400 turns for the largecoils and as many as 400 to 1000 turns for the smallcoils. The secondary capacitance

C

2

is not a discretecommercial capacitor but rather is the distributed ca-pacitance between the windings of

L

2

and the voltagegrading structure at the top of the coil (a toroid orsphere) and ground. This capacitance changes with thevolume charge density around the secondary, increas-ing somewhat when the sparks start. It also changeswith the surroundings of the coil, increasing as the coilis moved closer to a metal wall.The symbol

G

represents a spark gap, a device whichwillarc over at a suﬃciently high voltage. The simplestversion is just two metal spheres in air, separated by asmall air gap. It acts as a voltage controlled switch inthis circuit. The open circuit impedance of the gap is

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iron core air core

v

a

v

b

G

C

1

L

1

L

2

C

2

Figure 1: The Classical Tesla Coilvery high. The impedance during conduction dependson the geometry of the gap and the type of gas (usuallyair), and is a nonlinear function of the current density.This impedance is not negligible. A considerable frac-tion of the total input power goes into the productionof light, heat, and chemical products at the spark gap.The arc in the spark gap is similar to that of an elec-tric arc welder in visual intensity. That is, one shouldnot stare at the arc because of possible damage to theeyes. At most displays of classical Tesla coils, the sparkgap makes more noise and produces more lightthan theelectrical display at the top of the coil.When the gap is not conducting, the capacitor

C

1

is being charged in the circuit shown in Fig. 2, where just the central part of Fig. 1 is shown. The inductivereactance is much smaller than the capacitive reactanceat 60 Hz, so

L

1

appears as a short at 60 Hz and thecapacitor is being charged by the iron core transformersecondary.A common type of iron core transformer used forsmall Tesla coils is the neon sign transformer (NST).Secondary ratings are typically 9, 12, or 15 kV and30 or 60 mA. An NST has a large number of turnson the secondary and a very high inductance. Thisinductance will limit the current into a short circuit atabout the rated value. An operating neon sign has alow impedance, so current limitingis important to long1

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C

1

C

1

v

b

v

b

L

1

Figure 2:

C

1

Being Charged With The Gap Opentransformer life. However, in Tesla coil use, the NSTinductance willresonate with

C

1

. The NST may supplytwo or three times its rated current in this application.Overloading the NST produces longer sparks, but mayalso cause premature failure.When the voltage across the capacitor and gapreaches a given value, the gap arcs over, resulting inthe circuit in Fig. 3. We are not interested in eﬃciencyin this introduction so we will model the arc as a shortcircuit. The shorted gap splits the circuit into twohalves, with the iron core transformer operating at 60Hz and the circuit to the right of the gap operating ata frequency (or frequencies) determined by

C

1

,

L

1

,

L

2

,and

C

2

. It should be noted that the output voltage of the iron core transformer drops to (approximately) zerowhile the input voltage remains the same, as long asthe arc exists. The current through the transformer islimited by the transformer equivalent series impedanceshown as

R

s

+

jX

s

in Fig. 3. As mentioned, this oper-ating mode is not a problem for the NST. However, thelarge Tesla coils use conventional transformers with perunit impedances in the range of 0.05 to 0.1. A trans-former with a per unit impedance of 0.1 will experiencea current of ten times rated while the output is shorted.Most transformers do not survive very long under suchconditions. The solution is to include additional reac-tance in the input circuit.

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∨∨∨∧∧∧

gapshorted

X

s

C

1

C

2

L

2

R

s

L

1

Figure 3: Tesla Circuit With Gap Shorted.The equivalent lumped circuit model of the Tesla coilwhile the gap is shorted is shown in Fig. 4.

R

1

and

R

2

are the eﬀective resistances of the air cored transformerprimary and secondary, respectively. The mutual in-ductance between the primary and secondary is shownby the symbol

M

. The coeﬃcient of coupling is wellunder unity for an air cored transformer, so the idealtransformer model used for an iron cored transformerthat electrical engineering students study in the ﬁrstcourse on energy conversion does not apply here.

∨∨∨∧∧∧

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∨∨∨∧∧∧

v

1

L

1

L

2

C

2

C

1

v

2

R

1

M R

2

E E

i

1

i

2

Figure 4: Lumped Circuit Model Of A Tesla Coil, arcon.At the time the gap arcs over, all the energy is storedin

C

1

. As time increases, energy is shared among

C

1

,

L

1

,

C

2

,

L

2

, and

M

. The total energy in the circuitdecreases with time because of losses in the resistances

R

1

and

R

2

. There are four energy storage devices so afourth order diﬀerential equation must be solved. Theinitial conditions are some initial voltage

v

1

, and

i

1

=

i

2

=

v

2

= 0. If the arc starts again before all theenergy from the previous arc has been dissipated, thenthe initial conditions must be changed appropriately.With proper design (proper values of

C

1

,

L

1

,

C

2

,

L

2

, and

M

) it is possible to have all the energy in

C

1

transferred to the secondary at some time

t

1

. Thatis, at

t

1

there is no voltage across

C

1

and no currentthrough

L

1

. If the gap can be opened at

t

1

, then thereis no way for energy to get back into the primary. Nocurrent can ﬂow, so no energy can be stored in

L

1

, andwithout current the capacitor cannot be charged. Thesecondary then becomes a separate RLC circuit withnonzero initial conditions for both

C

2

and

L

2

, as shownin Fig. 5. This circuit will then oscillate or “ring” ata resonant frequency determined by

C

2

and

L

2

. Withthe gap open, the Tesla coil secondary is simply anRLC circuit, described in any text on circuit theory.The output voltage is a damped sinusoid.

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∨∨∨∧∧∧

L

2

C

2

v

2

R

2

E

i

2

Figure 5: Lumped Circuit Model Of A Tesla Coil, arcoﬀ.2

Finding a peak value for

v

2

given some initial valuefor

v

1

thus requires a two step solution process. Weﬁrst solve a fourth order diﬀerential equation to ﬁnd

i

2

and

v

2

as a function of time. At some time

t

1

thecircuit changes to the one shown in Fig. 5, which isdescribed by a second order diﬀerential equation. Theinitialconditions are the values of

i

2

and

v

2

determinedfrom the previous solution at time

t

1

. The resultingsolution then gives the desired peak values for voltageand current. The process is tedious, but can readilybe done on a computer. It yields some good insightsas to the eﬀects of parameter variation. It helps estab-lish a benchmark for optimum performance and alsohelps identify parameter values that are at least of thecorrect order of magnitude. However, there are severallimitations to the process which must be kept in mind.First, the arc is very diﬃcult to characterize accu-rately in this model. The equivalent

R

1

will change,perhaps by an order of magnitude, with factors like

i

1

,ambient humidity, and the condition, geometry, andtemperature of the electrode materials. This intro-duces a very signiﬁcant error into the results.Second, the arc is not readily turned oﬀ at a preciseinstant of time. The space between electrodes must becleared of the hot conducting plasma (the current car-rying ions and electrons) before the spark gap can re-turn to its open circuit mode. Otherwise, when energystarts to bounce back from the secondary, a voltage willappear across the spark gap, and current will start toﬂow again, after the optimum time

t

1

has passed. Withﬁxed electrodes, the plasma is dissipated by thermaland chemical processes that require tens of microsec-onds to function. When we consider that the optimum

t

1

may be 2

µ

s, a problem is obvious. This dissipationtime can be decreased signiﬁcantly by putting a fan onthe electrodes to blow the plasma away. This also hasthe beneﬁt of cooling the electrodes. For more powerfulsystems, however, the most common method is a rotat-ing spark gap. A circular disc with several electrodesmounted on it is driven by a motor. An arc is estab-lished when a moving electrode passes by a stationaryelectrode, but the arc is immediately stretched out bythe movement of the disc. During the time around acurrent zero, the resistance of the arc can increase towhere the arc cannot be reestablished by the followingincrease in voltage.The rotary spark gap still has limitationson the min-imum arc time. Suppose we consider a disc with a ra-dius of 0.2 m and a rotational speed of 400 rad/sec(slightly above 3600 RPM). The edge of the disc ismoving at a linear velocity of

rω

= 80 m/s. Supposealso that an arc cannot be sustained with arc lengthsabove 2 cm. It requires 0.02/80 = 25

µ

s for the discto turn this distance. This time can be shortened bymaking the disc larger or by turning it at a higher rateof speed, but in both cases we worry about the stresslimits of the disc. Nobody wants fragments of a faileddisc ﬂying around the room. The practical lower limitof arc length seems to be about 10

µ

s. With larger coilsthis may be reasonably close to the optimum value.The third reason for concern about the above calcu-lations is that the Tesla coil secondary has features thatcannot be precisely modeled by a lumped circuit. Onesuch feature is ringing at ‘harmonic’ frequencies. Nei-ther distributed nor lumped models do a particularlygood job of predicting these frequencies. For example,a medium sized secondary might usually ring down at160 kHz. Sometimes, however, it will ring down at3.5(160)= 560 kHz. A third harmonic appears in manyelectrical circuits and has plausible explanations. A 3.5‘harmonic’ is another story entirely.

2. The Extra Coil

As mentioned above, the classical Tesla coil uses twostages of voltage increase. Some coilers get a thirdstage of voltage increase by adding a magniﬁer coil,also called an extra coil, to their classical Tesla coil.This is illustrated in Fig. 6.

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iron core air core

v

a

v

b

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C

1

L

1

L

2

C

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magniﬁerFigure 6: The Classical Tesla Coil With Extra CoilThe extra coil and the air core transformer are notmagnetically coupled. The output (top) of the classi-cal coil is electrically connected to the input (bottom)of the extra coil with a section of copper water pipeof large enough diameter that corona is not a majorproblem. A separation of 2 or 3 meters is typical.Voltage increase on the extra coil is by transmissionline action (ﬁeld theory), or by RLC resonance (cir-cuit theory), rather than the transformer action of theiron core transformer. Voltage increase on the air coretransformer is partly by transformer action and partlyby transmission line action. When optimized for ex-tra coil operation, the air core transformer looks morelike a transformer (greater coupling, shorter secondary)3

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