A transmission line is a material medium or structure that forms a path for directing the transmission of energy from one place to another, such as electromagnetic waves or acoustic waves, as well as electric power transmission.
However in communications and electronic engineering, the term has a more specific meaning. In these fields, transmission lines are specialized cables and other media designed to carry alternating current and electromagnetic waves of high frequency (radio frequency or higher), high enough that its wave nature must be taken into account. Transmission lines are used for purposes such as connecting radio transmitters and receivers with their antennas, distributing cable television signals, and computer network connections.
Ordinary electrical cables suffice to carry low frequency AC, such as mains power, which reverses direction 50 to 60 times per second. However, they cannot be used to carry currents in the radio frequency range or higher, which reverse direction millions to billions of times per second, because the energy tends to radiate off the cable as radio waves, causing power losses. Radio frequency currents also tend to reflect from discontinuities in the cable such as connectors, and travel back down the cable toward the source. These reflections act as bottlenecks, preventing the power from reaching the destination. Transmission lines use specialized construction such as precise conductor dimensions and spacing, and impedance matching, to carry electromagnetic signals with minimal reflections and power losses. Types of transmission line include ladder line, coaxial cable, dielectric slabs, stripline, optical fiber, and waveguides. The higher the frequency, the shorter are the waves in a transmission medium. Transmission lines must be used when the frequency is high enough that the wavelength of the waves begins to approach the length of the cable used. To conduct energy at frequencies above the radio range, such as millimeter waves, infrared, and light, the waves become much smaller than the dimensions of the structures used to guide them, so transmission line techniques become inadequate and the methods of optics are used.
The theory of sound wave propagation is very similar mathematically to that of electromagnetic waves, so techniques from transmission line theory are also used to build structures to conduct acoustic waves; and these are also called transmission lines.
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