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Electric Current

Alternating Current

If a current changes direction repeatedly it is called an alternating current, or AC. Commercial electrical power is transported using alternating current because AC makes it possible to change the ratio of voltage to current with transformers. Using a higher voltage to transport electrical power across country means that the same power can be transferred using less current. For example, if transformers step up the voltage by a factor of 100, the current will be lower by a factor of 1/100. The higher voltage in this example would reduce the energy loss caused by the resistance of the wires to 0.01% of what it would be without the use of AC and transformers.

When alternating current flows in a circuit the charge drifts back and forth repeatedly. There is a transfer of energy with each current pulse. Simple electric motors deliver their mechanical energy in pulses related to the power line frequency.

Power lines in North America are based on AC having a frequency of 60 Hertz (Hz). In much of the rest of the world the power line frequency is 50 Hz. Alternating current generated aboard aircraft often has a frequency of 400 Hz because motors and generators can work efficiently with less iron, and therefore less weight, when this frequency is used.

Alternating current may also be the result of a combination of signals with many frequencies. The AC powering a loudspeaker playing music consists of a combination of many superimposed alternating currents with different frequencies and amplitudes.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Dysprosium to Electrophoresis - Electrophoretic TheoryElectric Current - The Speed Of An Electric Current, Electric Current And Energy, Electric Current And Magnetism, Alternating Current - Current and the transfer of electric charge, Direct current