An alternator is an electrical generator that converts mechanical energy to electrical energy in the form of alternating current. For reasons of cost and simplicity, most alternators use a rotating magnetic field with a stationary armature. Occasionally, a linear alternator or a rotating armature with a stationary magnetic field is used. In principle, any AC electrical generator can be called an alternator, but usually the term refers to small rotating machines driven by automotive and other internal combustion engines. An alternator that uses a permanent magnet for its magnetic field is called a magneto. Alternators in power stationsdriven by steam turbines are called turbo-alternators. Large 50 or 60 Hz three phase alternators in power plants generate most of the world's electric power, which is distributed by electric power grids.

A conductor moving relative to a magnetic field develops an electromotive force (EMF) in it (Faraday's Law). This emf reverses its polarity when it moves under magnetic poles of opposite polarity. Typically, a rotating magnet, called the rotor turns within a stationary set of conductors wound in coils on an iron core, called the stator. The field cuts across the conductors, generating an induced EMF (electromotive force), as the mechanical input causes the rotor to turn.

The rotating magnetic field induces an AC voltage in the stator windings. Since the currents in the stator windings vary in step with the position of the rotor, an alternator is a synchronous generator.

The rotor's magnetic field may be produced by permanent magnets, or by a field coil electromagnet. Automotive alternators use a rotor winding which allows control of the alternator's generated voltage by varying the current in the rotor field winding. Permanent magnet machines avoid the loss due to magnetizing current in the rotor, but are restricted in size, due to the cost of the magnet material. Since the permanent magnet field is constant, the terminal voltage varies directly with the speed of the generator. Brushless AC generators are usually larger than those used in automotive applications.

An automatic voltage control device controls the field current to keep output voltage constant. If the output voltage from the stationary armature coils drops due to an increase in demand, more current is fed into the rotating field coils through the voltage regulator (VR). This increases the magnetic field around the field coils which induces a greater voltage in the armature coils. Thus, the output voltage is brought back up to its original value.

Alternators used in central power stations also control the field current to regulate reactive power and to help stabilize the power system against the effects of momentary faults. Often there are three sets of stator windings, physically offset so that the rotating magnetic field produces a three phase current, displaced by one-third of a period with respect to each other.

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