The working principle of an alternator is very simple. It is just like the basic principle of DC generator. It also depends upon Faraday’s law of electromagnetic induction which says the current is induced in the conductor inside a magnetic field when there is a relative motion between that conductor and the magnetic field.
For understanding working of alternator let us think about a single rectangular turn placed in between two opposite magnetic poles as shown above.
Say this single turn loop ABCD can rotate against axis a-b. Suppose this loop starts rotating clockwise. After 90o rotation the side AB or conductor AB of the loop comes in front of S-pole and conductor CD comes in front of N-pole. At this position the tangential motion of the conductor AB is just perpendicular to the magnetic flux lines from N to S pole. Hence, the rate of flux cutting by the conductor AB is maximum here and for that flux cutting there will be an induced current in the conductor AB and the direction of the induced current can be determined by Fleming’s right-hand rule. As per this rule the direction of this current will be from A to B. At the same time conductor CD comes under N pole and here also if we apply Fleming right-hand rule we will get the direction of induced current and it will be from C to D.
Now after clockwise rotation of another 90o the turn ABCD comes at the vertical position as shown below. At this position tangential motion of conductor AB and CD is just parallel to the magnetic flux lines, hence there will be no flux cutting that is no current in the conductor.
While the turn ABCD comes from a horizontal position to a vertical position, the angle between flux lines and direction of motion of conductor, reduces from 90o to 0o and consequently the induced current in the turn is reduced to zero from its maximum value.
After another clockwise rotation of 90o the turn again comes to horizontal position, and here conductor AB comes under N-pole and CD comes under S-pole, and here if we again apply Fleming right-hand rule, we will see that induced current in conductor AB, is from point B to A and induced current in the conductor CD is from D to C.
As at this position the turn comes at a horizontal position from its vertical position, the current in the conductors comes to its maximum value from zero. That means current is circulating in the close turn from point B to A, from A to D, from D to C and from C to B, provided the loop is closed although it is not shown here. That means the current is in reverse of that of the previous horizontal position when the current was circulating as A → B → C → D → A.
While the turn further proceeds to its vertical position the current is again reduced to zero. So if the turn continues to rotate the current in turn continually alternate its direction. During every full revolution of the turn, the current in turn gradually reaches to its maximum value then reduces to zero and then again it comes to its maximum value but in opposite direction and again it comes to zero. In this way, the current completes one full sine wave cycle during each 360o revolution of the turn. So, we have seen how alternating current is produced in a turn is rotated inside a magnetic field. From this, we will now come to the actual working principle of an alternator.
Now we place one stationary brush on each slip ring. If we connect two terminals of an external load with these two brushes, we will get an alternating current in the load. This is our elementary model of an alternator.
Having understood the very basic principle of an alternator, let us now have an insight into its basic operational principle of a practical alternator. During the discussion of the basic working principle of an alternator, we have considered that the magnetic field is stationary and conductors (armature) is rotating. But generally in practical construction of alternator, armature conductors are stationary and field magnets rotate between them. The rotor of an alternator or a synchronous generator is mechanically coupled to the shaft or the turbine blades, which is made to rotate at synchronous speed Ns under some mechanical force results in magnetic flux cutting of the stationary armature conductors housed on the stator.
As a direct consequence of this flux cutting an induced emf and current starts to flow through the armature conductors which first flow in one direction for the first half cycle and then in the other direction for the second half cycle for each winding with a definite time lag of 120o due to the space displaced arrangement of 120o between them as shown in the figure below. This particular phenomenon results in three-phase power flow out of the alternator which is then transmitted to the distribution stations for domestic and industrial uses.