An alternator is an electromechanical device that converts mechanical energy to alternating current electrical energy. Most alternators use a rotating magnetic field but linear alternators are occasionally used. In principle, any AC electrical generator can be called an alternator, but usually the word refers to small rotating machines driven by automotive and other internal combustion engines. In UK, large alternators in power stations which are driven by steam turbines are called turbo-alternators.
Alternating current generating systems were known in simple forms from the discovery of the magnetic induction of electric current. The early machines were developed by pioneers such as Michael Faraday and Hippolyte Pixii. Faraday developed the "rotating rectangle", whose operation was heteropolar - each active conductor passed successively through regions where the magnetic field was in opposite directions. The first public demonstration of a more robust "alternator system" took place in 1886.Large two-phase alternating current generators were built by a British electrician, J.E.H. Gordon, in 1882. Lord Kelvin and Sebastian Ferranti also developed early alternators, producing frequencies between 100 and 300 hertz. In 1891, Nikola Tesla patented a practical "high-frequency" alternator (which operated around 15,000 hertzAfter 1891, polyphase alternators were introduced to supply currents of multiple differing phases.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
Theory of operation
Alternators generate electricity by the same principle as DC generators, namely, when the magnetic field around a conductor changes, a current is induced in the conductor. Typically, a rotating magnet called the rotor turns within a stationary set of conductors wound in coils on an iron core, called the stator. The field cuts across the conductors, generating an electrical current, as the mechanical input causes the rotor to turn.
The rotating magnetic field induces an AC voltage in the stator windings. Often there are three sets of stator windings, physically offset so that the rotating magnetic field produces three phase currents, displaced by one-third of a period with respect to each other.
The rotor magnetic field may be produced by induction (in a "brushless" alternator), by permanent magnets (in very small machines), or by a rotor winding energized with direct current through slip rings and brushes. The rotor magnetic field may even be provided by stationary field winding, with moving poles in the rotor. Automotive alternators invariably use a rotor winding, which allows control of the alternator generated voltage by varying the current in the rotor field winding. Permanent magnet machines avoid the loss due to magnetizing current in the rotor, but are restricted in size, owing to the cost of the magnet material. Since the permanent magnet field is constant, the terminal voltage varies directly with the speed of the generator. Brushless AC generators are usually larger machines than those used in automotive applications.