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Rectifier circuits

rectifier half-wave rectifier

Now we come to the most popular application of the diode: rectification. Simply defined, rectification is the conversion of alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC). This almost always involves the use of some device that only allows one-way flow of electrons. As we have seen, this is exactly what a semiconductor diode does. The simplest type of rectifier circuit is the half-wave rectifier, so called because it only allows one half of an AC waveform to pass through to the load:

For most power applications, half-wave rectification is insufficient for the task. The harmonic content of the rectifier's output waveform is very large and consequently difficult to filter. Furthermore, AC power source only works to supply power to the load once every half-cycle, meaning that much of its capacity is unused. Half-wave rectification is, however, a very simple way to reduce power to a resistive load. Some two-position lamp dimmer switches apply full AC power to the lamp filament for "full" brightness and then half-wave rectify it for a lesser light output:

In the "Dim" switch position, the incandescent lamp receives approximately one-half the power it would normally receive operating on full-wave AC. Because the half-wave rectified power pulses far more rapidly than the filament has time to heat up and cool down, the lamp does not blink. Instead, its filament merely operates at a lesser temperature than normal, providing less light output. This principle of "pulsing" power rapidly to a slow-responding load device in order to control the electrical power sent to it is very common in the world of industrial electronics. Since the controlling device (the diode, in this case) is either fully conducting or fully nonconducting at any given time, it dissipates little heat energy while controlling load power, making this method of power control very energy-efficient. This circuit is perhaps the crudest possible method of pulsing power to a load, but it suffices as a proof-of-concept application.

full-wave rectifier center-tap rectifier

If we need to rectify AC power so as to obtain the full use of both half-cycles of the sine wave, a different rectifier circuit configuration must be used. Such a circuit is called a full-wave rectifier. One type of full-wave rectifier, called the center-tap design, uses a transformer with a center-tapped secondary winding and two diodes, like this:

This circuit's operation is easily understood one half-cycle at a time. Consider the first half-cycle, when the source voltage polarity is positive (+) on top and negative (-) on bottom. At this time, only the top diode is conducting; the bottom diode is blocking current, and the load "sees" the first half of the sine wave, positive on top and negative on bottom. Only the top half of the transformer's secondary winding carries current during this half-cycle:

During the next half-cycle, the AC polarity reverses. Now, the other diode and the other half of the transformer's secondary winding carry current while the portions of the circuit formerly carrying current during the last half-cycle sit idle. The load still "sees" half of a sine wave, of the same polarity as before: positive on top and negative on bottom:

One disadvantage of this full-wave rectifier design is the necessity of a transformer with a center-tapped secondary winding. If the circuit in question is one of high power, the size and expense of a suitable transformer is significant. Consequently, the center-tap rectifier design is seen only in low-power applications.

bridge rectifier

Another, more popular full-wave rectifier design exists, and it is built around a four-diode bridge configuration. For obvious reasons, this design is called a full-wave bridge:

Current directions in the full-wave bridge rectifier circuit are as follows for each half-cycle of the AC waveform:


Remembering the proper layout of diodes in a full-wave bridge rectifier circuit can often be frustrating to the new student of electronics. I've found that an alternative representation of this circuit is easier both to remember and to comprehend. It's the exact same circuit, except all diodes are drawn in a horizontal attitude, all "pointing" the same direction:

polyphase bridge rectifier three-phase bridge rectifier

One advantage of remembering this layout for a bridge rectifier circuit is that it expands easily into a polyphase version:

Each three-phase line connects between a pair of diodes: one to route power to the positive (+) side of the load, and the other to route power to the negative (-) side of the load. Polyphase systems with more than three phases are easily accommodated into a bridge rectifier scheme. Take for instance this six-phase bridge rectifier circuit:

When polyphase AC is rectified, the phase-shifted pulses overlap each other to produce a DC output that is much "smoother" (has less AC content) than that produced by the rectification of single-phase AC. This is a decided advantage in high-power rectifier circuits, where the sheer physical size of filtering components would be prohibitive but low-noise DC power must be obtained. The following diagram shows the full-wave rectification of three-phase AC:

ripple voltage

In any case of rectification -- single-phase or polyphase -- the amount of AC voltage mixed with the rectifier's DC output is called ripple voltage. In most cases, since "pure" DC is the desired goal, ripple voltage is undesirable. If the power levels are not too great, filtering networks may be employed to reduce the amount of ripple in the output voltage.

Sometimes, the method of rectification is referred to by counting the number of DC "pulses" output for every 360o of electrical "rotation." A single-phase, half-wave rectifier circuit, then, would be called a 1-pulse rectifier, because it produces a single pulse during the time of one complete cycle (360o) of the AC waveform. A single-phase, full-wave rectifier (regardless of design, center-tap or bridge) would be called a 2-pulse rectifier, because it outputs two pulses of DC during one AC cycle's worth of time. A three-phase full-wave rectifier would be called a 6-pulse unit.

Modern electrical engineering convention further describes the function of a rectifier circuit by using a three-field notation of phases, ways, and number of pulses. A single-phase, half-wave rectifier circuit is given the somewhat cryptic designation of 1Ph1W1P (1 phase, 1 way, 1 pulse), meaning that the AC supply voltage is single-phase, that current on each phase of the AC supply lines moves in one direction (way) only, and that there is a single pulse of DC produced for every 360o of electrical rotation. A single-phase, full-wave, center-tap rectifier circuit would be designated as 1Ph1W2P in this notational system: 1 phase, 1 way or direction of current in each winding half, and 2 pulses or output voltage per cycle. A single-phase, full-wave, bridge rectifier would be designated as 1Ph2W2P: the same as for the center-tap design, except current can go both ways through the AC lines instead of just one way. The three-phase bridge rectifier circuit shown earlier would be called a 3Ph2W6P rectifier.

Is it possible to obtain more pulses than twice the number of phases in a rectifier circuit? The answer to this question is yes: especially in polyphase circuits. Through the creative use of transformers, sets of full-wave rectifiers may be paralleled in such a way that more than six pulses of DC are produced for three phases of AC. A 30o phase shift is introduced from primary to secondary of a three-phase transformer when the winding configurations are not of the same type. In other words, a transformer connected either Y-Δ or Δ-Y will exhibit this 30o phase shift, while a transformer connected Y-Y or Δ-Δ will not. This phenomenon may be exploited by having one transformer connected Y-Y feed a bridge rectifier, and have another transformer connected Y-Δ feed a second bridge rectifier, then parallel the DC outputs of both rectifiers. Since the ripple voltage waveforms of the two rectifiers' outputs are phase-shifted 30o from one another, their superposition results in less ripple than either rectifier output considered separately: 12 pulses per 360o instead of just six:

  • Rectification is the conversion of alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC).
  • A half-wave rectifier is a circuit that allows only one half-cycle of the AC voltage waveform to be applied to the load, resulting in one non-alternating polarity across it. The resulting DC delivered to the load "pulsates" significantly.
  • A full-wave rectifier is a circuit that converts both half-cycles of the AC voltage waveform to an unbroken series of voltage pulses of the same polarity. The resulting DC delivered to the load doesn't "pulsate" as much.
  • Polyphase alternating current, when rectified, gives a much "smoother" DC waveform (less ripple voltage) than rectified single-phase AC.

Last Update: 2010-12-01