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Electric generator

U.S. NRC image of a modern steam turbine generator (STG).

Eary Ganz Generator in Zwevegem, West Flanders, Belgium

This article is about electromagnetic power generation.

For electrostatic generators like the Van de Gra machine, see Electrostatic generator.


In electricity generation, a generator is a device that converts mechanical energy to electrical energy for use in an
external circuit. The source of mechanical energy may
vary widely from a hand crank to an internal combustion
engine. Generators provide nearly all of the power for
electric power grids.

Armature: The power-producing component of an

electrical machine. In a generator, alternator, or dynamo the armature windings generate the electric
current. The armature can be on either the rotor or
the stator.

The reverse conversion of electrical energy into mechanical energy is done by an electric motor, and motors and
generators have many similarities. Many motors can be
mechanically driven to generate electricity and frequently
make acceptable generators.

Field: The magnetic eld component of an electrical machine. The magnetic eld of the dynamo or
alternator can be provided by either electromagnets
or permanent magnets mounted on either the rotor
or the stator.

2 History

Electromagnetic generators fall into one of two broad categories, dynamos and alternators.

Before the connection between magnetism and electricity

Dynamos generate direct current, usually with voltwas discovered, electrostatic generators were used. They
age and/or current uctuations, usually through the
operated on electrostatic principles. Such generators genuse of a commutator
erated very high voltage and low current. They oper Alternators generate alternating current, which may ated by using moving electrically charged belts, plates,
be rectied by another (external or directly incorpo- and disks that carried charge to a high potential electrode. The charge was generated using either of two
rated) system.
mechanisms: Electrostatic induction and the triboelectric
eect. Because of their ineciency and the diculty
of insulating machines that produced very high voltages,
electrostatic generators had low power ratings, and were
Rotor: The rotating part of an electrical machine
never used for generation of commercially signicant
Stator: The stationary part of an electrical machine quantities of electric power.


started experimenting in 1827 with the electromagnetic

rotating devices which he called electromagnetic selfrotors. In the prototype of the single-pole electric starter
(nished between 1852 and 1854) both the stationary and
the revolving parts were electromagnetic. He also may
have formulated the concept of the dynamo in 1861 (before Siemens and Wheatstone) but didn't patent it as he
thought he wasn't the rst to realize this.[1]

2.2 Direct current generators

Main article: Dynamo
The dynamo was the rst electrical generator capaThe Faraday disk was the rst electric generator. The horseshoeshaped magnet (A) created a magnetic eld through the disk (D).
When the disk was turned, this induced an electric current radially outward from the center toward the rim. The current owed
out through the sliding spring contact m, through the external circuit, and back into the center of the disk through the axle.


Theoretical development

Main article: Electromagnetism

The operating principle of electromagnetic generators
was discovered in the years of 18311832 by Michael
Faraday. The principle, later called Faradays law, is that
an electromotive force is generated in an electrical con- This large belt-driven high-current dynamo produced 310 amductor which encircles a varying magnetic ux.
peres at 7 volts. Dynamos are no longer used due to the size and
He also built the rst electromagnetic generator, called
the Faraday disk, a type of homopolar generator, using
a copper disc rotating between the poles of a horseshoe
magnet. It produced a small DC voltage.

complexity of the commutator needed for high power applications.

ble of delivering power for industry. The dynamo uses

electromagnetic induction to convert mechanical rotation
This design was inecient, due to self-cancelling coun- into direct current through the use of a commutator. An
terows of current in regions that were not under the in- early dynamo was built by Hippolyte Pixii in 1832.
uence of the magnetic eld. While current was induced
The modern dynamo, t for use in industrial applications,
directly underneath the magnet, the current would circu- was invented independently by Sir Charles Wheatstone,
late backwards in regions that were outside the inuence
Werner von Siemens and Samuel Alfred Varley. Varley
of the magnetic eld. This counterow limited the power took out a patent on 24 December 1866, while Siemens
output to the pickup wires, and induced waste heating
and Wheatstone both announced their discoveries on 17
of the copper disc. Later homopolar generators would January 1867, the latter delivering a paper on his discovsolve this problem by using an array of magnets arranged ery to the Royal Society.
around the disc perimeter to maintain a steady eld eect
The dynamo-electric machine employed self-powering
in one current-ow direction.
electromagnetic eld coils rather than permanent magnets
Another disadvantage was that the output voltage was to create the stator eld.[2] Wheatstones design was simvery low, due to the single current path through the mag- ilar to Siemens, with the dierence that in the Siemens
netic ux. Experimenters found that using multiple turns design the stator electromagnets were in series with the
of wire in a coil could produce higher, more useful volt- rotor, but in Wheatstones design they were in parallel.[3]
ages. Since the output voltage is proportional to the num- The use of electromagnets rather than permanent magber of turns, generators could be easily designed to pro- nets greatly increased the power output of a dynamo and
duce any desired voltage by varying the number of turns. enabled high power generation for the rst time. This
Wire windings became a basic feature of all subsequent invention led directly to the rst major industrial uses of
generator designs.
electricity. For example, in the 1870s Siemens used elecIndependently of Faraday, the Hungarian Anyos Jedlik tromagnetic dynamos to power electric arc furnaces for



the production of metals and other materials.

The dynamo machine that was developed consisted of a
stationary structure, which provides the magnetic eld,
and a set of rotating windings which turn within that eld.
On larger machines the constant magnetic eld is provided by one or more electromagnets, which are usually
called eld coils.
Large power generation dynamos are now rarely seen due
to the now nearly universal use of alternating current for
power distribution. Before the adoption of AC, very large
direct-current dynamos were the only means of power
generation and distribution. AC has come to dominate
due to the ability of AC to be easily transformed to and
from very high voltages to permit low losses over large


son and Ince in 1882, to market his Ferranti-Thompson
Alternator, invented with the help of renowned physicist
Lord Kelvin.[6] His early alternators produced frequencies between 100 and 300 Hz. Ferranti went on to design the Deptford Power Station for the London Electric
Supply Corporation in 1887 using an alternating current
system. On its completion in 1891, it was the rst truly
modern power station, supplying high-voltage AC power
that was then stepped down for consumer use on each
street. This basic system remains in use today around the

Alternating current generators

Main article: Alternator

Through a series of discoveries, the dynamo was suc-

A small early 1900s 75 kVA direct-driven power station AC alternator, with a separate belt-driven exciter generator.

In 1891, Nikola Tesla patented a practical highfrequency alternator (which operated around 15 kHz).[7]
After 1891, polyphase alternators were introduced to
supply currents of multiple diering phases.[8] Later alternators were designed for varying alternating-current
frequencies between sixteen and about one hundred hertz,
for use with arc lighting, incandescent lighting and electric motors.[9]

2.4 Self-excitation
Main article: Excitation (magnetic)
As the requirements for larger scale power generation increased, a new limitation rose: the magnetic elds available from permanent magnets. Diverting a small amount
ceeded by many later inventions, especially the AC of the power generated by the generator to an electroalternator, which was capable of generating alternating magnetic eld coil allowed the generator to produce subcurrent.
stantially more power. This concept was dubbed selfAlternating current generating systems were known in excitation.
simple forms from Michael Faraday's original discovery The eld coils are connected in series or parallel with the
of the magnetic induction of electric current. Faraday armature winding. When the generator rst starts to turn,
himself built an early alternator. His machine was a ro- the small amount of remanent magnetism present in the
tating rectangle, whose operation was heteropolar - each iron core provides a magnetic eld to get it started, generactive conductor passed successively through regions ating a small current in the armature. This ows through
where the magnetic eld was in opposite directions.[4]
the eld coils, creating a larger magnetic eld which genFerranti alternating current generator, c. 1900.

Large two-phase alternating current generators were built

by a British electrician, J.E.H. Gordon, in 1882. The rst
public demonstration of an alternator system was given
by William Stanley, Jr., an employee of Westinghouse
Electric in 1886.[5]
Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti established Ferranti, Thomp-

erates a larger armature current. This bootstrap process continues until the magnetic eld in the core levels
o due to saturation and the generator reaches a steady
state power output.
Very large power station generators often utilize a separate smaller generator to excite the eld coils of the larger.


In the event of a severe widespread power outage where 3.2.1 Induction generator
islanding of power stations has occurred, the stations may
need to perform a black start to excite the elds of their Main article: induction generator
largest generators, in order to restore customer power
Some AC motors may be used as generators, turning mechanical energy into electrical current. Induction generators operate by mechanically turning their rotor faster
3 Specialized types of generator
than the synchronous speed, giving negative slip. A regular AC asynchronous motor usually can be used as a
generator, without any internal modications. Induction
3.1 Direct current
generators are useful in applications such as minihydro
power plants, wind turbines, or in reducing high-pressure
3.1.1 Homopolar generator
gas streams to lower pressure, because they can recover
energy with relatively simple controls.
Main article: Homopolar generator
To operate an induction generator must be excited with
A homopolar generator is a DC electrical generator com- a leading voltage; this is usually done by connection to
prising an electrically conductive disc or cylinder rotat- an electrical grid, or sometimes they are self-excited by
ing in a plane perpendicular to a uniform static magnetic using phase correcting capacitors.
eld. A potential dierence is created between the center of the disc and the rim (or ends of the cylinder), the 3.2.2 Linear electric generator
electrical polarity depending on the direction of rotation
and the orientation of the eld.
Main article: Linear alternator
It is also known as a unipolar generator, acyclic generator, disk dynamo, or Faraday disc. The voltage is
typically low, on the order of a few volts in the case of
small demonstration models, but large research generators can produce hundreds of volts, and some systems
have multiple generators in series to produce an even
larger voltage.[11] They are unusual in that they can produce tremendous electric current, some more than a million amperes, because the homopolar generator can be
made to have very low internal resistance.

In the simplest form of linear electric generator, a sliding

magnet moves back and forth through a solenoid - a spool
of copper wire. An alternating current is induced in the
loops of wire by Faradays law of induction each time the
magnet slides through. This type of generator is used in
the Faraday ashlight. Larger linear electricity generators
are used in wave power schemes.
3.2.3 Variable speed constant frequency generators


MHD generator

Main article: MHD generator

A magnetohydrodynamic generator directly extracts electric power from moving hot gases through a magnetic
eld, without the use of rotating electromagnetic machinery. MHD generators were originally developed because
the output of a plasma MHD generator is a ame, well
able to heat the boilers of a steam power plant. The rst
practical design was the AVCO Mk. 25, developed in
1965. The U.S. government funded substantial development, culminating in a 25 MW demonstration plant in
1987. In the Soviet Union from 1972 until the late 1980s,
the MHD plant U 25 was in regular commercial operation
on the Moscow power system with a rating of 25 MW,
the largest MHD plant rating in the world at that time.[12]
MHD generators operated as a topping cycle are currently
(2007) less ecient than combined cycle gas turbines.


Alternating current

Many renewable energy eorts attempt to harvest natural

sources of mechanical energy (wind, tides, etc) to produce electricity. Because these sources uctuate in power
applied, standard generators using permanent magnets
and xed windings would deliver unregulated voltage and
frequency. The overhead of regulation (whether before
the generator via gear reduction or after generation by
electrical means) is high in proportion to the naturallyderived energy available.
New generator designs such as the asynchronous or induction singly fed generator, the doubly fed generator, or
the brushless wound-rotor doubly fed generator are seeing success in variable speed constant frequency applications, such as wind turbines or other renewable energy
technologies. These systems thus oer cost, reliability
and eciency benets in certain use cases.

4 Common use cases

4.1 Vehicular generators


Human powered electrical generators

Roadway vehicles

Main article: Alternator (automotive)

portable petrol powered sets to large turbine installations.
The primary advantage of engine-generators is the ability
to independently supply electricity, allowing the units to
serve as backup power solutions.[13]

Motor vehicles require electrical energy to power their

instrumentation, keep the engine itself operating, and
4.3 Human powered electrical generators
recharge their batteries. Until about the 1960s motor vehicles tended to use DC generators with electromechanMain article: Self-powered equipment
ical regulators. Following the historical trend above and
for many of the same reasons, these have now been reA generator can also be driven by human muscle power
placed by alternators with built-in rectier circuits.
(for instance, in eld radio station equipment).


Bicycles require energy to power running lights and other

equipment. There are two common kinds of generator in
use on bicycles: bottle dynamos which engage the bicycles tire on an as-needed basis, and hub dynamos which
are directly attached to the bicycles drive train.


Sailing boats may use a water- or wind-powered generator

to trickle-charge the batteries. A small propeller, wind
turbine or impeller is connected to a low-power generator
to supply currents at typical wind or cruising speeds.
Protesters at Occupy Wall Street using bicycles connected to a motor and one-way diode to charge batteries for their electronics[14]



Human powered direct current generators are commerMain article: Engine-generator

cially available, and have been the project of some DIY
An engine-generator is the combination of an electrical enthusiasts. Typically operated by means of pedal power,
a converted bicycle trainer, or a foot pump, such generators can be practically used to charge batteries, and in
some cases are designed with an integral inverter. The
average adult could generate about 125-200 watts on a
pedal powered generator, but at a power of 200 W, a typical healthy human will reach complete exhaustion and
fail to produce any more power after approximately 1.3
hours.[15] Portable radio receivers with a crank are made
to reduce battery purchase requirements, see clockwork
radio. During the mid 20th century, pedal powered radios were used throughout the Australian outback, to provide schooling (School of the Air), medical and other
needs in remote stations and towns.

The Caterpillar 3512C Genset is an example of the enginegenerator package. This unit produces 1225 kilowatts of electric

generator and an engine (prime mover) mounted together

to form a single piece of self-contained equipment. The
engines used are usually piston engines, but gas turbines
can also be used. And there are even hybrid diesel-gas
units, called dual-fuel units. Many dierent versions of
engine-generators are available - ranging from very small

4.4 Mechanical measurement

Designed to measure shaft speed, a tachogenerator is a
device which produces an output voltage proportional to
that speed. Tachogenerators are frequently used to power
tachometers to measure the speeds of electric motors, engines, and the equipment they power. speed. With precise construction and design, generators can be built to
produce very precise voltages for certain ranges of shaft

Equivalent circuit


[2] Berliner Berichte. January 1867.

[3] Proceedings of the Royal Society. February 14, 1867.
[4] Thompson, Sylvanus P., Dynamo-Electric Machinery. pp.
[5] Blalock, Thomas J., "Alternating Current Electrication,
1886". IEEE History Center, IEEE Milestone. (ed. rst
practical demonstration of a dc generator - ac transformer
[6] Ferranti Timeline Museum of Science and Industry (Accessed 22-02-2012)
[7] US 447921, Tesla, Nikola, Alternating Electric Current

Equivalent circuit of generator and load.

G = generator
VG=generator open-circuit voltage
RG=generator internal resistance
VL=generator on-load voltage
RL=load resistance

[8] Thompson, Sylvanus P., Dynamo-Electric Machinery. pp.

[9] Thompson, Sylvanus P., Dynamo-Electric Machinery. pp.
[10] SpecSizer: Generator Set Sizing

An equivalent circuit of a generator and load is shown in [11] Losty, H.H.W & Lewis, D.L. (1973) Homopolar Mathe diagram to the right. The generator is represented by
chines. Philosophical Transactions for the Royal Socian abstract generator consisting of an ideal voltage source
ety of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciand an internal resistance. The generators VG and RG
ences. 275 (1248), 69-75
parameters can be determined by measuring the winding
resistance (corrected to operating temperature), and mea- [12] Langdon Crane, Magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) Power
More Energy from Less Fuel, Issue
suring the open-circuit and loaded voltage for a dened
Brief Number IB74057, Library of Congress Concurrent load.
gressional Research Service, 1981, retrieved from 18 July 2008
This is the simplest model of a generator, further elements may need to be added for an accurate represen[13] Hurricane Preparedness: Protection Provided by Power
tation. In particular, inductance can be added to allow
Generators | Power On with Mark Lum. Wpowerprodfor the machines windings and magnetic leakage ux,[16] 10 May 2011. Retrieved 2012-08-24.
but a full representation can become much more complex
[14] With Generators Gone, Wall Street Protesters Try Bicythan this.[17]
cle Power, Colin Moynihan, New York Times, 30 October
2011; accessed 2 November 2011

See also
Faradays law of induction
Goodness factor
Magnetic stator alternator

[15] Program: hpv (updated 6/22/11)". Retrieved

[16] Geo Klempner, Isidor Kerszenbaum, 1.7.4 Equivalent
circuit, Handbook of Large Turbo-Generator Operation
and Maintenance, John Wiley & Sons, 2011 (Kindle edition) ISBN 1118210409.
[17] Yoshihide Hase, 10: Theory of generators, Handbook
of Power System Engineering, John Wiley & Sons, 2007
ISBN 0470033665.

Superconducting electric machine


8 External links
Simple generator


[1] Augustus Heller (2 April 1896), Anianus Jedlik, Nature (Norman Lockyer) 53 (1379): 516,
Bibcode:1896Natur..53..516H, doi:10.1038/053516a0

Demonstration of an electrical generator

Short video of a simple generator

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