Rotating magnetic field

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A rotating magnetic field is a magnetic field that has moving polarities in which its opposite poles rotate about a central point or axis. Ideally the rotation changes direction at a constant angular rate. This is a key principle in the operation of the alternating-current motor.

Rotating magnetic fields are often utilized for electromechanical applications such as induction motors and electric generators. However, they are also used in purely electrical applications such as induction regulators.


A symmetric rotating magnetic field can be produced with as few as two polar wound coils driven at 90 degrees phasing. However, 3 sets of coils are nearly always used because it is compatible with a symmetric 3-phase AC sine current system. The three coils are driven with each set driven 120 degrees in phase from the others. For the purpose of this example, the magnetic field is taken to be the linear function of the coil's current.

Sine wave current in each of the three stationary coils produces three sine varying magnetic fields perpendicular to the rotation axis. The three magnetic fields add as vectors to produce a single rotating magnetic field.
Rotating 3-phase magnetic field, as indicated by the rotating black arrow

The result of adding three 120-degrees phased sine waves on the axis of the motor is a single rotating vector which remains always constant in magnitude.[1] The rotor has a constant magnetic field. The N pole of the rotor will move toward the S pole of the magnetic field of the stator, and vice versa. This magneto-mechanical attraction creates a force which will drive the rotor to follow the rotating magnetic field in a synchronous manner.

U.S. Patent 381968: Mode and plan of operating electric motors by progressive shifting; Field Magnet; Armature; Electrical conversion; Economical; Transmission of energy; Simple construction; Easier construction; Rotating magnetic field principles.

A permanent magnet in such a field will rotate so as to maintain its alignment with the external field. This effect was utilized in early alternating current electric motors. A rotating magnetic field can be constructed using two orthogonal coils with a 90 degree phase difference in their AC currents. However, in practice such a system would be supplied through a three-wire arrangement with unequal currents. This inequality would cause serious problems in the standardization of the conductor size. In order to overcome this, three-phase systems are used where the three currents are equal in magnitude and have a 120 degree phase difference. Three similar coils having mutual geometrical angles of 120 degrees will create the rotating magnetic field in this case. The ability of the three phase system to create the rotating field utilized in electric motors is one of the main reasons why three phase systems dominate in the world electric power supply systems.

Rotating magnetic fields are also used in induction motors. Because magnets degrade with time, induction motors use short-circuited rotors (instead of a magnet) which follow the rotating magnetic field of a multicoiled stator. In these motors, the short circuited turns of the rotor develop eddy currents in the rotating field of the stator which in turn move the rotor by Lorentz force. These types of motors are not usually synchronous, but instead necessarily involve a degree of 'slip' in order that the current may be produced due to the relative movement of the field and the rotor.


In 1824, the French physicist François Arago formulated the existence of rotating magnetic fields using a rotating copper disk and a needle, termed Arago's rotations. English experimenters Charles Babbage and Charles Herschel found they could induce rotation in Arago's copper disk by spinning a horseshoe magnet under it with English scientist Michael Faraday later attributing the effect to electromagnetic induction[2] In 1879 English physicist Walter Baily replaced the horseshoe magnets with four electromagnets and, by manually turning switches on and off, demonstrated a primitive induction motor.[3][4][5][6][7]

Practical application of a rotating magnetic field in an AC motor is generally attributed to two inventors, the Italian physicist and electrical engineer Galileo Ferraris, and the Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla.[8] Tesla claimed in his autobiography that he identified the concept in 1882 while Ferraris wrote about researching the concept and built a working model in 1885,[9] although there is no independent verification for either claim. In 1888 Tesla obtained a United States patent (U.S. Patent 0,381,968) for his design and Ferraris published his research in a paper to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Turin.

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  1. ^ Production of rotating magnetic field, |
  2. ^ W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press - 2013, pages 52-54
  3. ^ W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press - 2013, page 55
  4. ^ Babbage, C.; Herschel, J. F. W. (Jan 1825). "Account of the Repetition of M. Arago's Experiments on the Magnetism Manifested by Various Substances during the Act of Rotation". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 115 (0): 467–496. doi:10.1098/rstl.1825.0023. Retrieved 2 December 2012. 
  5. ^ Thompson, Silvanus Phillips (1895). Polyphase Electric Currents and Alternate-Current Motors (1st ed.). London: E. & F.N. Spon. p. 261. Retrieved 2 December 2012. 
  6. ^ Baily, Walter (June 28, 1879). "A Mode of producing Arago's Rotation". Philosophical magazine: A journal of theoretical, experimental and applied physics. Taylor & Francis. 
  7. ^ Vučković, Vladan (November 2006). "Interpretation of a Discovery" (PDF). The Serbian Journal of Electrical Engineers. 3 (2). Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  8. ^ Thomas Parke Hughes, Networks of power: electrification in Western society, 1880-1930, page 117
  9. ^ Encyclopedia Americana: Meyer to Nauvoo, Scholastic Library Pub., 2006, page 558

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