How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Electric Power Generation
Page 3 of 4 (34 Questions and Answers)

997. How do windmills work to generate electricity? — KT, Aurora, Ontario
Windmills extract energy from the wind by rotating as the wind twists them. Whenever an object rotates in the same direction as the torque (the twist) being exerted on it, mechanical work is done on that object. In this case, wind exerts a torque on the windmill's blades and they rotating in the direction of that torque, so the wind is doing work on the blades. Work is the mechanical transfer of energy, so the wind is transferring some of its energy to the blades.

The blades don't keep this newly acquired energy. Instead, they do work on a generator. The generator, which consists of a rotating magnet that spins within stationary coils of wire, uses this energy to generate electricity. The amount of power that a windmill generates depends on the wind speed and the windmill's size, but large windmills can generate in excess of a million watts of electric power.

1114. How do long range metal detectors work? — AS
In general, metal detectors find metal objects by looking for their electromagnetic responses. For example, you can tell when an iron or steel object is nearby by waving a magnet around. If you feel something attracting the magnet, you can be pretty sure that there is a piece of iron or steel nearby. Similarly, if you wave a strong magnet rapidly across an aluminum or copper surface, you'll feel a drag effect as the moving magnet causes electric currents to flow in the metal surface—electric currents are themselves magnetic.

Of course, a real metal detector is much more sensitive than your hands are, but it's using similar principles to detect nearby metal. Most often, a metal detector uses a coil of wire with an alternating current in it to create a rapidly changing magnetic field around the coil. If that changing magnetic field enters a piece of nearby metal, the metal responds. If the metal is ferromagnetic—meaning that it has intrinsic magnetic order like iron or steel—it will respond strongly with its own magnetic field. If the metal is non-ferromagnetic—meaning that it doesn't have the appropriate intrinsic magnetic order—it will respond more weakly with magnetic fields that are caused by electric currents that begin to flow through it.

In a short range metal detector, the detector looks for the direct interaction of its magnetic field and a nearby piece of metal. That nearby metal changes the characteristics of the detector's wire coil in a way that's relatively easy to detect. But in a longer-range metal detector, the electromagnetic coil must actually radiate an electromagnetic wave and then look for the reflection of this electromagnetic wave from a more distant piece of metal. That's because the magnetic field of the coil doesn't extend outward forever—it dies away a few diameters of the coil away from the coil itself. For the metal detector to look for metal farther away, it needs help carrying the magnetic field through space. By combining an electric field with the magnetic field, the long-range metal detector creates an electromagnetic wave—a radio wave—that travels independently through space. Electromagnetic waves reflect from many things, particularly objects that conduct electricity. So the long-range metal detector launches an electromagnetic wave and then looks for the reflection of that wave. This wave reflection technique is the basis for sonar (sound waves) and radar (radio waves), and it can be used to find metals deep in the ground. Unfortunately, the ground itself conducts electricity to some extent, so it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the reflections from metal from the reflections from other things in the ground.

1178. Can a photocell ever absorb too much light? If it can, does it explode or simply stop absorbing light? — MR
Since not all of the light power absorbed by a photocell is converted into electric power, a photocell that's exposed to too much light will overheat. High temperatures are disastrous for all semiconductor devices, including computer chips and photocells. If a semiconductor device overheats slightly, the excessive thermal energy will change the electronic properties of the semiconductor layers so that these layers won't behave as they were chemically prepared to do. In an overheated photocell, charge will be allowed to flow backward so that the photocell will become less energy efficient. But if a semiconductor device overheats seriously, the semiconductor layers will change permanently—atoms, molecules, and entire structures will migrate and rearrange, and the device will never work properly again.

By itself, an overheated photocell won't fail dramatically; it will just stop working. If you've overheated it severely, it will remain broken from then on. But if the photocell is part of a larger collection of power generating elements that continues to produce power, that photocell may suddenly consume all of the power from the other elements. In that case, the photocell may explode as its temperature skyrockets.

1179. How does a photocell absorb light and turn it into power? — MR
A photocell is actually a large diode—a one-way device for electric current. Like most diodes, the photocell consists of two different layers of chemically altered or "doped" semiconductors, the anode layer and the cathode layer, and the junction between these two layers has the peculiar property that it normally allows electrons to cross it in only one direction. There is what's called a "depletion region" at the junction, a very thin insulating layer with two electrically charged surfaces—the surface on the cathode side is positively charged and the surface on the anode side is negatively charged.

When an electron, which is negatively charged, approaches the depletion region from the anode side, it first encounters the depletion region's negatively charged surface and is repelled. But when the electron approaches from the cathode side, it first encounters the depletion region's positively charged surface and is attracted. If it has enough energy when it approaches the depletion region from the cathode side, the electron can cross the depletion region to reach the anode layer. Thus electrons can move relatively easily from the photocell's cathode layer to its anode layer but they can't go back.

When a photocell is exposed to light, some of the light particles (photons) are absorbed in the diode's cathode layer. When such an absorption occurs, the photon's energy may be transferred to an electron in the cathode, giving that electron the energy it needs to cross the depletion region and reach the anode. But once the electron has arrived at the anode it can't return to the cathode directly across the depletion region. Instead, it must flow through an external circuit in order to return to the cathode. As that electron flows through the external circuit, it can give up some of its energy, obtained from the light photon, to devices in that circuit. In that manner, light energy has provided energy to an electrically powered device.

1180. If I measure current from a photocell, am I indirectly measuring power as well? — MR
As long as current is free to flow from one end of the photocell to the other, the amount of current flowing through that circuit is almost exactly proportional to the number of light particles (photons) striking the photocell each second. Since the rate at which photons strike a photocell is generally proportional to the light power striking that photocell, you can use a measurement of current to make a measurement of light power. While there are a few subtle details that you must be careful about, particularly changes in the light spectrum and unanticipated impediments to the free flow of current through the circuit, this relationship between the current and the light power is very useful. For example, most camera light meters use photocells to determine exposures.

1185. With the amount of wind that's produced by high-speed traffic on expressways, why don't electric companies put wind-powered generators in the center lanes? Using this (wasted) wind to generate electricity would be cheaper, safer, and environmentally friendlier than the power plants that they are running now. — DJA
While wind generators are being used experimentally to charge batteries in roadway equipment that can't be reached with power lines, there are at least three reasons why such generators aren't in large scale use. First, wind generators that connect to the AC power grid work most efficiently when they turn at a steady rate—the generator itself must remain in synch with the cyclic alternating current in the electric power lines. The intermittent and sporadic winds produced by passing cars and trucks aren't really suitable for such wind generators.

Second, to make efficient use of the wind created by traffic, hundreds of wind generators would have to be installed on each mile of expressway. Since wind generators are expensive, it's much more cost effective to put them on windy ridges out in the country or by the seashore.

Third, the wind generators you propose would actually extract energy from the cars and trucks and reduce their gas mileages! That fact might surprise you, since it would seem that extracting energy from the wind wouldn't have any effect on the cars and trucks that created that wind. But the wind and the vehicles continue to interact as they move along the expressway—each vehicle drags a pocket of air with it and interfering with this air pocket has the effect of interfering with the vehicle! The vehicle uses energy to maintain this moving air pocket and it burns additional fuel. An aerodynamically well-designed vehicle has a relatively small air pocket, but there is a limit to what can be done. To reduce the energy cost of maintaining the air pocket, the vehicle's driver can steer it into the air pocket behind another vehicle so that the two vehicles share a single air pocket. The lead vehicle then provides most of the energy needed to keep the air pocket moving. This technique of sharing an air pocket is called "drafting" and is frequently used by bicycle racers. But while drafting makes it easier for many vehicles to keep their air pockets moving, the wind generators that you propose would make it harder—they would steal energy from the air pockets of every passing vehicle and make those vehicles fight harder to keep their air pockets moving.

A better way to save energy would be to encourage large-scale drafting in some safe way. Having chains of independent cars tailgate one another would be energy efficient, but would cause horrific accidents. However, assembling those cars into a tightly coupled "train" may someday become possible with advances in technology and computer controls.

1191. During a recent ice storm, I was standing in my front doorway before dawn and the entire southern sky turned brilliant blue-green for about five seconds or more. What caused this effect? People who missed it tell me it was just a transformer "blowing up" but I've seen one blow up on our street and there is no comparison. The light I saw virtually filled the entire horizon.
You probably saw a sustained high-voltage arc between high-tension wires and/or the ground. I would guess that the ice pulled down one of the wires or caused a tree to fall across them. While transformer explosions often involve hundreds of kilowatts of electric power being turned into light and heat, most of that light is hidden from view inside the transformer. Such an explosion can be dramatic, with some nice sparks and flashes, but it's usually not very bright. However, when a high-tension wire arcs, a significant fraction of the many megawatts of power flowing through the arc is converted directly into light. In effect, a high-pressure arc lamp forms right in the air and it looks like a camera flash that just keeps going until something stops the arc or the power is shut off. The blue-green color you saw comes from characteristics of the air and metal wires involved in the arc. As you saw, a couple of million watts of light are enough to light up the predawn sky quite effectively!

There is, however, an alternative explanation: you may have seen the "green flash" that occasionally appears just as the sun reaches the horizon at sunrise or sunset. This flash is a refraction effect in the atmosphere in which only blue-green light from the sun reaches the viewer's eyes for a second or two while the sun is just below the horizon. However, this green flash should appear in the eastern sky just before dawn, not the southern sky.

1198. How does the tachometer in a new car work? It looks like a magnet wrapped with wire that's located very near a saw-toothed wheel that spins as the engine turns. — TR, Provo, UT
The device you describe is essentially an electric generator. The toothed wheel is made of pure iron so that its teeth can become temporarily magnetized while they are close to the permanent magnet. When a tooth becomes magnetized as it approaches the permanent magnet, or demagnetized as it moves away from the permanent magnet, it changes the shape and strength of the magnetic field around the permanent magnet. Since changing magnetic fields produce electric fields, the tooth's movement causes an electric field to appear around the magnet. This electric field pushes on mobile electric charges in the wire coil wrapped around the magnet and generates electricity. The current in the coil flows one way as a tooth approaches the magnet and reverses when that tooth moves away from the magnet. Also, the faster the tooth moves, the stronger the change in the magnetic field and the higher the voltage generated in the coil. The tachometer can tell how fast the engine is turning by how frequently the current in the coil reverses directions or by how much voltage the coil generates.

1224. How much current can a power generator produce and how does that current vary as you introduce more load onto the generator?
There is no fundamental limit to how much current a generator can handle, however, the characteristics of the generator's wiring, its magnetic fields, and the machinery turning it all tend to limit its current capacity. A generator's wires aren't perfect and, as the current passing through the generator increases, its wires waste more and more power. Like any wiring, a generator's wires convert electric power into thermal power in proportion to the square of the current. Thus if you double the current in the generator, you quadruple the power loss. While this power loss and the resulting heat are trivial at low currents, they become serious problems at high currents.

Increasing the current in the generator also affects its magnetic fields because currents are magnetic. At a low current, the current's magnetism can be ignored. But when a generator is handling a very large current, the magnetic fields associated with that current are no longer small perturbations on the generator's normal magnetic fields and the generator may not perform properly any more.

Finally, a generator's job is to transfer energy from a mechanical system to the electric current passing through it. As the amount of current in the generator increases, the amount of work that the mechanical system provides must also increase—the generator becomes harder to turn. There will always be a limit to how much torque an engine or crank can exert on the generator to keep it spinning and thus there will be a limit to how much current the generator can handle.

As for how the current varies with load: the more current the load permits to pass through it, the more current will pass through the generator. Assuming that the generator is well built and has very little electric resistance, the load will serve to limit the current. The generator will then deliver just as much current as the load will permit. If the load permits more current, the generator will deliver more. As a result, the wires in the generator will waste more power as heat, the magnetic fields in the generator will become more complicated, and the device powering the generator will have to work harder to keep the generator turning.

1235. Does a moving magnet use up its energy when it generates electricity? Does this mean that the term "permanent magnet" is a misnomer because its magnetism can be used up? — MT, San Antonio, TX
When a moving magnet generates electricity, it does transfer energy to the electric current. However, that energy comes from either the magnet's kinetic energy (its energy of motion) or from whatever is pushing the magnet forward. The magnet's magnetism is basically unchanged by this process.

Nonetheless, a large permanent magnet isn't really permanent. The random fluctuations of thermal energy and the influences of passing magnetic fields gradually demagnetize large permanent magnets. However, good permanent magnets demagnetize so slowly that the changes are completely undetectable. You might have to wait a billion years to detect any significant weakening in the magnetic field around such a magnet.
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