A power supply is a device that supplies electrical energy to one or more electric loads. The term is most commonly applied to devices that convert one form of electrical energy to another, though it may also refer to devices that convert another form of energy (e.g., 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. In the latter case, for example, low voltage DC power supplies are commonly integrated with their loads in devices such as computers and household electronics.
Constraints that commonly affect power supplies include:
- The amount of voltage and current they can supply.
- How long they can supply energy without needing some kind of refueling or recharging (applies to power supplies that employ portable energy sources).
- How stable their output voltage or current is under varying load conditions.
- Whether they provide continuous or pulsed energy.
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 will be more complex.
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.
A switched-mode power supply (SMPS) works on a different principle. AC input, usually at mains voltage, is rectified without the use of a mains transformer, to obtain a DC voltage. This voltage is then switched on and off at a high speed by electronic switching circuitry, which may then pass through a high-frequency, hence small, light, and cheap, transformer or inductor. The duty cycle of the output square wave increases as power output requirements increase. Switched-mode power supplies are always regulated. If the SMPS uses a properly-insulated high-frequency transformer, the output will be electrically isolated from the mains, essential for safety.
The input power slicing occurs at a very high speed (typically 10 kHz — 1 MHz). High frequency and high voltages in this first stage permit much smaller transformers and smoothing capacitors than in a power supply operating at mains frequency, as linear supplies do. After the transformer secondary, the AC is again rectified to DC. To keep output voltage constant, the power supply needs a sophisticated feedback controller to monitor current drawn by the load.
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. For decades PC power supplies have provided a power good signal to the motherboard whose absence 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 a recent 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. 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.
By slicing up the sinusoidal AC wave into very small discrete pieces, a portion of unused alternating current stays in the power line as very small spikes of power that cannot be utilized by AC motors and results in waste heating of power line transformers. Hundreds of switched mode power supplies in a building can result in poor power quality for other customers surrounding that building, and high electric bills for the company if they are billed according to their power factor in addition to the actual power used. Filtering capacitor banks may be needed on the building power mains to suppress and absorb these negative power factor effects.
Some switch-mode power supplies use L-C resonance in the primary circuit to convert what would otherwise be a square wave into a sinusoidal waveform. This can decrease the losses in the switching devices and reduce RF harmonics of the switching frequency, but it adds to the circuit complexity and places higher demands on design tolerances.
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 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.
Programmable power supplies are now used in many applications. Some examples include automated equipment testing, crystal growth monitoring, and differential thermal analysis.
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. Such a scheme can supply power as long as the battery charge suffices, e.g., in a computer installation, giving the operator sufficient time to effect an orderly system shutdown without loss of data. 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.
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 (i.e. 0-10V) that can be used to control the output voltage, effectively turning them into high-voltage amplifiers albeit with very limited bandwidth.
Voltage multipliers, as the name implies, are circuits designed to multiply the input voltage. The input voltage may be doubled (voltage doubler), tripled (voltage tripler), quadrupled (voltage quadrupler), etc. Voltage multipliers are also power converters. An AC input is converted to a higher DC output. 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 (see 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 capability of the capacitor limits the maximum output voltage.
Voltage multipliers have many applications. For example, voltage multipliers can be found in everyday items like televisions and photocopiers. Even more applications can be found in the laboratory, such as cathode ray tubes, oscilloscopes, and photomultiplier tubes.
A modern computer power supply is a switch with on and off supply designed to convert 110-240 V AC power from the mains supply, to several output both positive (and historically negative) DC voltages in the range + 12V,-12V,+5V,+5VBs and +3.3V. The first generation of computers power supplies were linear devices, but as cost became a driving factor, and weight became important, switched mode supplies are almost universal.
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 linear or switched-mode power supply (or in some cases just a transformer) that is built into the top of a plug is known as a "plug pack", "plug-in adapter", "adapter block", "domestic mains adapter" or just "power adapter". Slang terms include "wall wart" and "power brick". 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.