Pulse-width modulation

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Pulse-width modulation (PWM) is a commonly used technique for controlling power to inertial electrical devices, made practical by modern electronic power switches.

The average value of voltage (and current) fed to the load is controlled by turning the switch between supply and load on and off at a fast pace. The longer the switch is on compared to the off periods, the higher the power supplied to the load is.

The PWM switching frequency has to be much faster than what would affect the load, which is to say the device that uses the power. Typically switchings have to be done several times a minute in an electric stove, 120 Hz in a lamp dimmer, from few kilohertz (kHz) to tens of kHz for a motor drive and well into the tens or hundreds of kHz in audio amplifiers and computer power supplies.

The term duty cycle describes the proportion of 'on' time to the regular interval or 'period' of time; a low duty cycle corresponds to low power, because the power is off for most of the time. Duty cycle is expressed in percent, 100% being fully on.

The main advantage of PWM is that power loss in the switching devices is very low. When a switch is off there is practically no current, and when it is on, there is almost no voltage drop across the switch. Power loss, being the product of voltage and current, is thus in both cases close to zero. PWM works also well with digital controls, which, because of their on/off nature, can easily set the needed duty cycle.

PWM has also been used in certain communication systems where its duty cycle has been used to convey information over a communications channel.



In the past, when only partial power was needed (such as for a sewing machine motor), a rheostat (located in the sewing machine's foot pedal) connected in series with the motor adjusted the amount of current flowing through the motor, but also wasted power as heat in the resistor element. It was an inefficient scheme, but tolerable because the total power was low. This was one of several methods of controlling power. There were others—some still in use—such as variable autotransformers, including the trademarked 'Autrastat' for theatrical lighting; and the Variac, for general AC power adjustment. These were quite efficient, but also relatively costly.

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