3-Phase Generator (or Motor) Principles
All 3-phase generators (or motors) use a rotating magnetic field.
In the picture to the left we have installed three electromagnets around a circle. Each of the three magnets is connected to its own phase in the three phase electrical grid.
As you can see, each of the three electromagnets alternate between producing a South pole and a North pole towards the centre. The letters are shown in black when the magnetism is strong, and in light grey when the magnetism is weak. The fluctuation in magnetism corresponds exactly to the fluctuation in voltage of each phase. When one phase is at its peak, the other two have the current running in the opposite direction, at half the voltage. Since the timing of current in the three magnets is one third of a cycle apart, the magnetic field will make one complete revolution per cycle.
Synchronous Motor Operation
The compass needle (with the North pole painted red) will follow the magnetic field exactly, and make one revolution per cycle. With a 50 Hz grid, the needle will make 50 revolutions per second, i.e. 50 times 60 = 3000 rpm (revolutions per minute).
In the picture above, we have in fact managed to build what is called a 2-pole permanent magnet synchronous motor. The reason why it is called a synchronous motor, is that the magnet in the centre will rotate at a constant speed which is synchronous with (running exactly like the cycle in) the rotation of the magnetic field.
The reason why it is called a 2-pole motor is that it has one North and one South pole. It may look like three poles to you, but in fact the compass needle feels the pull from the sum of the magnetic fields around its own magnetic field. So, if the magnet at the top is a strong South pole, the two magnets at the bottom will add up to a strong North pole.
The reason why it is called a permanent magnet motor is that the compass needle in the centre is a permanent magnet, not an electromagnet. (You could make a real motor by replacing the compass needle by a powerful permanent magnet, or an electromagnet which maintains its magnetism through a coil (wound around an iron core) which is fed with direct current).
The setup with the three electromagnets is called the stator in the motor, because this part of the motor remains static (in the same place). The compass needle in the centre is called the rotor, obviously because it rotates.
Synchronous Generator Operation
If you start forcing the magnet around (instead of letting the current from the grid move it), you will discover that it works like a generator, sending alternating current back into the grid. (You should have a more powerful magnet to produce much electricity). The more force (torque) you apply, the more electricity you generate, but the generator will still run at the same speed dictated by the frequency of the electrical grid.
You may disconnect the generator completely from the grid, and start your own private 3-phase electricity grid, hooking your lamps up to the three coils around the electromagnets. (Remember the principle of magnetic / electrical induction from the reference manual section of this web site). If you disconnect the generator from the main grid, however, you will have to crank it at a constant rotational speed in order to produce alternating current with a constant frequency. Consequently, with this type of generator you will normally want to use an indirect grid connection of the generator.
In practice, permanent magnet synchronous generators are not used very much. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that permanent magnets tend to become demagnetised by working in the powerful magnetic fields inside a generator. Another reason is that powerful magnets (made of rare earth metals, e.g. Neodynium) are quite expensive, even if prices have dropped lately.
Wind Turbines With Synchronous Generators
Wind turbines which use synchronous generators normally use electromagnets in the rotor which are fed by direct current from the electrical grid. Since the grid supplies alternating current, they first have to convert alternating current to direct current before sending it into the coil windings around the electromagnets in the rotor.
The rotor electromagnets are connected to the current by using brushes and slip rings on the axle (shaft) of the generator.
© Copyright 1997-2003 Danish Wind Industry Association
Updated 19 September 2003