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A power supply is a device that supplies electric power to an electrical load. The term is most commonly applied to electric power converters that convert one form of electrical energy to another, though it may also refer to devices that convert another form of energy (mechanical, chemical, solar) to electrical energy. A regulated power supply is one that controls the output voltage or current to a specific value; the controlled value is held nearly constant despite variations in either load current or the voltage supplied by the power supply's energy source.
Every power supply must obtain the energy it supplies to its load, as well as any energy it consumes while performing that task, from an energy source. Depending on its design, a power supply may obtain energy from:
- Electrical energy transmission systems. Common examples of this include power supplies that convert AC line voltage to DC voltage.
- Energy storage devices such as batteries and fuel cells.
- Electromechanical systems such as generators and alternators.
- Solar power.
A power supply may be implemented as a discrete, stand-alone device or as an integral device that is hardwired to its load. Examples of the latter case include the low voltage DC power supplies that are part of desktop computers and consumer electronics devices.
Commonly specified power supply attributes include:
- The amount of voltage and current it can supply to its load.
- How stable its output voltage or current is under varying line and load conditions.
- How long it can supply energy without refueling or recharging (applies to power supplies that employ portable energy sources).
- 1 Types of power supply
- 2 Power supply applications
- 3 Overload protection
- 4 Power conversion
- 5 Mechanical power supplies
- 6 Terminology
- 7 References
- 8 See also
Types of power supply
Power supplies for electronic devices can be broadly divided into line-frequency (or "conventional") and switching power supplies. The line-frequency supply is usually a relatively simple design, but it becomes increasingly bulky and heavy for high-current equipment due to the need for large mains-frequency transformers and heat-sinked electronic regulation circuitry. Conventional line-frequency power supplies are sometimes called "linear", but that is a misnomer because the conversion from AC voltage to DC is inherently non-linear when the rectifiers feed into capacitive reservoirs. Linear voltage regulators produce regulated output voltage by means of an active voltage divider that consumes energy, thus making efficiency low. A switched-mode supply of the same rating as a line-frequency supply will be smaller, is usually more efficient, but would be more complex.
A battery is a device that converts stored chemical energy to electrical energy. Batteries are commonly used as energy sources in many household and industrial applications.
There are two types of batteries: primary batteries (disposable batteries), which are designed to be used once and discarded, and secondary batteries (rechargeable batteries), which are designed to be recharged and used multiple times. Batteries come in many sizes, from miniature cells used in hearing aids and wristwatches to room-size battery banks that serve as backup power supplies in telephone exchanges and computer data centers.
DC power supply
An AC powered unregulated power supply usually uses a transformer to convert the voltage from the wall outlet (mains) to a different, nowadays usually lower, voltage. If it is used to produce DC, a rectifier is used to convert alternating voltage to a pulsating direct voltage, followed by a filter, comprising one or more capacitors, resistors, and sometimes inductors, to filter out (smooth) most of the pulsation. A small remaining unwanted alternating voltage component at mains or twice mains power frequency (depending upon whether half- or full-wave rectification is used)—ripple—is unavoidably superimposed on the direct output voltage.
For purposes such as charging batteries the ripple is not a problem, and the simplest unregulated mains-powered DC power supply circuit consists of a transformer driving a single diode in series with a resistor.
Before the introduction of solid-state electronics, equipment used valves (vacuum tubes) which required high voltages; power supplies used step-up transformers, rectifiers, and filters to generate one or more direct voltages of some hundreds of volts, and a low alternating voltage for filaments. Only the most advanced equipment used expensive and bulky regulated power supplies.
AC power supply
An AC power supply typically takes the voltage from a wall outlet (mains supply) and lowers it to the desired voltage. Some filtering may take place as well.
Linear regulated power supply
The voltage produced by an unregulated power supply will vary depending on the load and on variations in the AC supply voltage. For critical electronics applications, a linear regulator may be used to set the voltage to a precise value, stabilized against fluctuations in input voltage and load. The regulator also greatly reduces the ripple and noise in the output direct current. Linear regulators often provide current limiting, protecting the power supply and attached circuit from overcurrent.
Adjustable linear power supplies are common laboratory and service shop test equipment, allowing the output voltage to be adjusted over a range. For example, a bench power supply used by circuit designers may be adjustable up to 30 volts and up to 5 amperes output. Some can be driven by an external signal, for example, for applications requiring a pulsed output.
In the past, mains electricity was supplied as DC in some regions, AC in others. Transformers cannot be used for DC, but a simple, cheap unregulated power supply could run directly from either AC or DC mains without using a transformer. The power supply consisted of a rectifier and a filter capacitor. When operating from DC, the rectifier was essentially a conductor, having no effect; it was included to allow operation from AC or DC without modification.
Switched-mode power supply
In a switched-mode power supply (SMPS), the AC mains input is directly rectified and then filtered to obtain a DC voltage. The resulting DC voltage is then switched on and off at a high frequency by electronic switching circuitry, thus producing an AC current that will pass through a high-frequency transformer or inductor. Switching occurs at a very high frequency (typically 10 kHz — 1 MHz), thereby enabling the use of transformers and filter capacitors that are much smaller, lighter, and less expensive than those found in linear power supplies operating at mains frequency. After the inductor or transformer secondary, the high frequency AC is rectified and filtered to produce the DC output voltage. If the SMPS uses an adequately insulated high-frequency transformer, the output will be electrically isolated from the mains; this feature is often essential for safety.
Switched-mode power supplies are usually regulated, and to keep the output voltage constant, the power supply employs a feedback controller that monitors current drawn by the load. The switching duty cycle increases as power output requirements increase.
SMPSs often include safety features such as current limiting or a crowbar circuit to help protect the device and the user from harm. In the event that an abnormal high-current power draw is detected, the switched-mode supply can assume this is a direct short and will shut itself down before damage is done. PC power supplies often provide a power good signal to the motherboard; the absence of this signal prevents operation when abnormal supply voltages are present.
SMPSs have an absolute limit on their minimum current output. They are only able to output above a certain power level and cannot function below that point. In a no-load condition the frequency of the power slicing circuit increases to great speed, causing the isolated transformer to act as a Tesla coil, causing damage due to the resulting very high voltage power spikes. Switched-mode supplies with protection circuits may briefly turn on but then shut down when no load has been detected. A very small low-power dummy load such as a ceramic power resistor or 10-watt light bulb can be attached to the supply to allow it to run with no primary load attached.
Power factor has become an issue of concern for computer manufacturers. Switched mode power supplies have traditionally been a source of power line harmonics and have a very poor power factor. The rectifier input stage distorts the waveshape of current drawn from the supply; this can produce adverse effects on other loads. The distorted current causes extra heating in the wires and distribution equipment. Switched mode power supplies in a building can result in poor power quality for other utility customers. Customers may face higher electric bills for a low power factor load.
Some switch-mode power supplies use filters or additional switching stages in the incoming rectifier circuit to improve the waveform of the current taken from the AC line. This adds to the circuit complexity. Many computer power supplies built in the last few years now include power factor correction built right into the switched-mode supply, and may advertise the fact that they offer 1.0 power factor.
Programmable power supply
Programmable power supplies allow for remote control of the output voltage through an analog input signal or a computer interface such as RS232 or GPIB. Variable properties include voltage, current, and frequency (for AC output units). These supplies are composed of a processor, voltage/current programming circuits, current shunt, and voltage/current read-back circuits. Additional features can include overcurrent, overvoltage, and short circuit protection, and temperature compensation. Programmable power supplies also come in a variety of forms including modular, board-mounted, wall-mounted, floor-mounted or bench top. Programmable power supplies generally use SCPI as programming language.
Programmable power supplies can furnish DC, AC, or AC with a DC offset. The AC output can be either single-phase or three-phase. Single-phase is generally used for low-voltage, while three-phase is more common for high-voltage power supplies.
Uninterruptible power supply
An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) takes its power from two or more sources simultaneously. It is usually powered directly from the AC mains, while simultaneously charging a storage battery. Should there be a dropout or failure of the mains, the battery instantly takes over so that the load never experiences an interruption. In a computer installation, this gives the operators time to shut down the system in an orderly way. Other UPS schemes may use an internal combustion engine or turbine to continuously supply power to a system in parallel with power coming from the AC. The engine-driven generators would normally be idling, but could come to full power in a matter of a few seconds in order to keep vital equipment running without interruption. Such a scheme might be found in hospitals or telephone central offices.
High-voltage power supply
High voltage refers to an output on the order of hundreds or thousands of volts. High-voltage supplies use a linear setup to produce an output voltage in this range.
Additional features available on high-voltage supplies can include the ability to reverse the output polarity along with the use of circuit breakers and special connectors intended to minimize arcing and accidental contact with human hands. Some supplies provide analog inputs that can be used to control the output voltage, effectively turning them into high-voltage amplifiers albeit with very limited bandwidth.
A voltage multiplier is an electrical circuit that converts AC electrical power from a lower voltage to a higher DC voltage, typically by means of a network of capacitors and diodes. The input voltage may be doubled (voltage doubler), tripled (voltage tripler), quadrupled (voltage quadrupler), and so on. These circuits allow high voltages to be obtained using a much lower voltage AC source.
Typically, voltage multipliers are composed of half-wave rectifiers, capacitors, and diodes. For example, a voltage tripler consists of three half-wave rectifiers, three capacitors, and three diodes (as in the Cockcroft Walton multiplier). Full-wave rectifiers may be used in a different configuration to achieve even higher voltages. Also, both parallel and series configurations are available. For parallel multipliers, a higher voltage rating is required at each consecutive multiplication stage, but less capacitance is required. The voltage rating of the capacitors determines the maximum output voltage.
Voltage multipliers have many applications. For example, voltage multipliers can be found in everyday items like televisions and photocopiers. Other applications can be found in the laboratory, such as cathode ray tubes, oscilloscopes, and photomultiplier tubes.
Power supply applications
Computer power supply
A modern computer power supply is a switch-mode power supply that converts AC power from the mains supply, to several DC voltages. Switch-mode supplies replaced linear supplies due to cost, weight, and size improvement. The diverse collection of output voltages also have widely varying current draw requirements.
Welding power supply
Arc welding uses electricity to melt the surfaces of the metals in order to join them together through coalescence. The electricity is provided by a welding power supply, and can either be AC or DC. Arc welding typically requires high currents typically between 100 and 350 amps. Some types of welding can use as few as 10 amps, while some applications of spot welding employ currents as high as 60,000 amps for an extremely short time. Older welding power supplies consisted of transformers or engines driving generators. More recent supplies use semiconductors and microprocessors reducing their size and weight.
A power supply that is built into an AC mains power plug is known as a "plug pack" or "plug-in adapter", or by slang terms such as "wall wart". They are even more diverse than their names; often with either the same kind of DC plug offering different voltage or polarity, or a different plug offering the same voltage. "Universal" adapters attempt to replace missing or damaged ones, using multiple plugs and selectors for different voltages and polarities. Replacement power supplies must match the voltage of, and supply at least as much current as, the original power supply.
The least expensive AC units consist only of a small transformer, while DC adapters include a few additional diodes. Whether or not a load is connected to the power adapter, the transformer has a magnetic field continuously present and normally cannot be completely turned off unless unplugged.
In contrast, switched-mode power supplies can cut off leaky electrolyte-capacitors, use powerless MOSFETs, and reduce their working frequency to get a gulp of energy once in a while to power, for example, a clock, which would otherwise need a battery.
Power supplies often have protection from short circuit or overload that could damage the supply or cause a fire. Fuses and circuit breakers are two commonly used mechanisms for overload protection.
A fuse contains a short piece of wire which melts if too much current flows. This effectively disconnects the power supply from its load, and the equipment stops working until the problem that caused the overload is identified and the fuse is replaced. Some power supplies use a very thin wire link soldered in place as a fuse. Fuses in power supply units may be replaceable by the end user, but fuses in consumer equipment may require tools to access and change.
A circuit breaker contains an element that heats, bends and triggers a spring which shuts the circuit down. Once the element cools, and the problem is identified the breaker can be reset and the power restored.
Some PSUs use a thermal cutout buried in the transformer rather than a fuse. The advantage is it allows greater current to be drawn for limited time than the unit can supply continuously. Some such cutouts are self resetting, some are single use only.
Some supplies use current limiting instead of cutting off power if overloaded. The two types of current limiting used are electronic limiting and impedance limiting. The former is common on lab bench PSUs, the latter is common on supplies of less than 3 watts output.
A foldback current limiter reduces the output current to much less than the maximum non-fault current.
The term "power supply" is sometimes restricted to those devices that convert some other form of energy into electricity (such as solar power and fuel cells and generators). A more accurate term for devices that convert one form of electric power into another form (such as transformers and linear regulators) is power converter. The most common conversion is from AC to DC.
Mechanical power supplies
- Flywheels coupled to electrical generators or alternators
- Explosively pumped flux compression generators
- SCP - Short circuit protection
- OPP - Overpower (overload) protection
- OCP - Overcurrent protection
- OTP - Overtemperature protection
- OVP - Overvoltage protection
- UVP - Undervoltage protection
- UPS - Uninterruptable Power Supply
- PSU - Power Supply Unit
- SMPSU - Switch-Mode Power Supply Unit
- Quoting US patent #4937722, High efficiency direct coupled switched mode power supply: The power supply can also include crowbar circuit protecting it against damage by clamping the output to ground if it exceeds a particular voltage. http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/4937722-description.html
- Quoting US Patent #5402059: A problem can occur when loads on the output of a switching power supply become disconnected from the supply. When this occurs, the output current from the power supply becomes reduced (or eliminated if all loads become disconnected). If the output current becomes small enough, the output voltage of the power supply can reach the peak value of the secondary voltage of the transformer of the power supply. This occurs because with a very small output current, the inductor in the L-C low-pass filter does not drop much voltage (if any at all). The capacitor in the L-C low-pass filter therefore charges up to the peak voltage of the secondary of the transformer. This peak voltage is generally considerably higher than the average voltage of the secondary of the transformer. The higher voltage which occurs across the capacitor, and therefore also at the output of the power supply, can damage components within the power supply. The higher voltage can also damage any remaining electrical loads connected to the power supply. http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/5402059-description.html
- Miller, Rex. Electronics The Easy Way, 4th ed. Barron's Educational Series, 2002 p. 88-89.
- Malmstadt, Enke and Crouch, Electronics and Instrumentation for Scientists, The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc., 1981, ISBN 0-8053-6917-1, Chapter 3.
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- Power Supply Summary, Specifications, and Form Factors - Tom's Hardware Article
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