How Aircraft Generate Electricity
As aircraft continuously become more advanced with the addition of robust glass cockpit systems, complex electronics, and more lighting options, such vehicles have significantly increased their demand for electricity in order to operate all powered systems on board. Depending upon the type of aircraft and the amount of powered systems that are present, electricity is often either produced through the use of an alternator or generator. Both of these systems utilize a fairly similar approach to creating electricity, relying on the rotation of the engine, the use of magnets, and other components for generation.
Despite electricity not currently being used to drive the aircraft itself, electricity makes it possible to safely operate many lighting systems, communication systems, and avionics that require power. Lighting is a simple, yet crucial addition to any aircraft, making it possible to safely operate during the night or within low visibility conditions. Communication systems such as radios are similar, enabling pilots to communicate with Air Traffic Control and others. While rechargeable handheld radio units can be utilized, such equipment will often be much simpler in functionality.
Whether using a generator or alternator to create power, all electricity is used to charge the aircraft battery and various small electronics. The power that is routed to the battery must be direct current (DC), rather than alternating current (AC) which is more common to many electronics. While AC power can be used to transfer higher amounts of voltage with low amperage, batteries and other sensitive electronics are incompatible with such current types. Despite homes and other settings using AC power and power converters to transform AC to DC power, aircraft initially produce DC power from the start. Utilizing either 14 or 28 volt systems, this method of power generation ensures that the battery can be directly connected for charging before energy is directed to other various systems and devices. For much larger aircraft, however, AC and DC power both may need to be generated to facilitate the operation of passenger electronics, critical flight equipment, and more.
For small aircraft that only require a little amount of power, alternators are the most common power generation device. Alternators serve to charge the battery, that of which maintains a storage of power in the case of an alternator failure. Utilizing a stationary armature and a rotating magnetic field, the alternator may transform mechanical energy into electrical energy. Often serving piston-powered aircraft, alternators may be used to create the power necessary for the operation of lighting, radios, navigational equipment, and even autopilot systems that manage flaps, landing gear, and other flight controls.
Generators, on the other hand, utilize a stationary electromagnet and a rotating armature to produce direct current. As their power output is dependent upon the rotational speed of the engine, they can be less than optimal in certain conditions. Common to jet-powered aircraft, generators are powered by the battery for the means of starting the engine, later serving as the power generator for all electronics after starting procedures are finished.
Beyond alternators and generators, some aircraft may produce electricity through other means as well. Auxiliary power units, or APUs, are apparatuses often found on airliners and large turbine aircraft which serve as small turbine engines that can create bleed air for increasing starting power. With the energy they create, APUs can recharge batteries as well. Ram air turbines (RAT) are similar, installed on an aircraft in order to derive power from the airstream for emergency power generation.
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