Beginners Robotics Guide : Basic Electronics - II

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This second tutorial introduces you to the basic circuit components like resistors , inductors , capacitors and how they work . Also what are the various laws involved and how to use them .


We need some way to control the flow of current from a voltage source, like a battery, so we do not melt wires and blow up batteries. If you think of current, charge flow, in terms of water flow, a good electrical conductor is like big water pipe. Water mains and fire hoses have their uses, but you do not want to take a drink from one. Rather, we use small pipes, valves, and other devices to limit water flow to practical levels. Resistors do the same for current; they resist the flow of charge; they are poor conductors. The value of a resistor is measured in ohms and represented by the Greek letter capital omega. There are many different ways to make a resistor. Some are just a coil of wire made of a material that is a poor conductor. The most common and inexpensive type is made from powdered carbon and a glue-like binder. Such carbon composition resistors usually have a brown cylindrical body with a wire lead on each end, and colored bands that indicate the value of the resistor. The key to reading these values is given in the next tutorial .

There are many types of resistors . The potentiometer is a variable resistor. When the knob of a potentiometer is turned, a slider moves along the resistance element. Potentiometers generally have three terminals, a common slider terminal, and one that exhibits increasing resistance and one that has decreasing resistance relative to the slider as the shaft is turned in one direction. The resistance between the two stationary contacts is, of course, fixed, and is the value specified for the potentiometer. The photo-resistor or photocell is composed of a light sensitive material. When the photocell is exposed to more light, the resistance decreases. This type of resistor makes an excellent light sensor.

Ohm's Law

Ohm's law describes the relationship between voltage, V , which is trying to force charge to flow, resistance, R , which is resisting that flow, and the actual resulting current I . The relationship is simple and very basic: Name:  img85.gif
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Size:  601 Bytes. Thus large voltages and/or low resistances produce large currents. Large resistors limit current to low values. Almost every circuit is more complicated than just a battery and a resistor, so which voltage does the formula refer to? It refers to the voltage across the resistor, the voltage between the two terminal wires. Looked at another way, that voltage is actually produced by the resistor. The resistor is restricting the flow of charge, slowing it down, and this creates a traffic jam on one side, forming an excess of charge with respect to the other side. Any such charge difference or separation results in a voltage between the two points, as explained above. Ohm's law tells us how to calculate that voltage if we know the resistor value and the current flow. This voltage drop is analogous to the drop in water pressure through a small pipe or small nozzle.


Current flowing through a poor conductor produces heat by an effect similar to mechanical friction. That heat represents energy that comes from the charge traveling across the voltage difference. Remember that separated charges have the potential to do work and provide energy. The work involved in heating a resistor is not very useful, unless we are making a hotplate; rather it is a byproduct of restricting the current flow. Power is measured in units of watts (W), named after James Watt, the Englishman who invented the steam engine, a device for producing lots of useful power. The power that is released into the resistor as heat can be calculated as P=VI , where I is the current flowing through the resistor and V is the voltage across it. Ohm's law relates these two quantities, so we can also calculate the power as Name:  img86.gif
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Size:  691 Bytes. The power produced in a resistor raises its temperature and can change its value or destroy it. Most resistors are air-cooled and they are made with different power handling capacity. The most common values are 1/8, 1/4, 1, and 2 watt resistors, and the bigger the wattage rating, the bigger the resistor physically. Some high power applications use special water cooled resistors.

Combination of Resistors

Resistors are often connected together in a circuit, so it is necessary to know how to determine the resistance of a combination of two or more resistors. There are two basic ways in which resistors can be connected: in series and in parallel. A simple series resistance circuit is shown in Figure 4.4.

Figure 4.4: Two Resistors in Series
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Determining the total resistance for two or more resistors in series is very simple. Total resistance equals the sum of the individual resistances. In this case, RT=R1+R2 . This makes common sense; if you think again in terms of water flow, a series of obstructions in a pipe add up to slow the flow more than any one. The resistance of a series combination is always greater than any of the individual resistors.

The other method of connecting resistors is shown in Figure 4.5, which shows a simple parallel resistance circuit.

Figure 4.5: Two Resistors in Parallel
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Our water pipe analogy indicates that it should be easier for current to flow through this multiplicity of paths, even easier than it would be to flow through any single path. Thus, we expect a parallel combination of resistors to have less resistance than any one of the resistors. Some of the total current will flow through R1 and some will flow through R2, causing an equal voltage drop across each resistor. More current, however, will flow through the path of least resistance. The formula for total resistance in a parallel circuit is more complex than for a series circuit:

RT=1/{{1/R1}+{1/R2}...+{1/Rn}} .......(1)

Parallel and series circuits can be combined to make more complex structures, but the resulting complex resistor circuits can be broken down and analyzed in terms of simple series or parallel circuits. Why would you want to use such combinations? There are several reasons; you might use a combination to get a value of resistance that you needed but did not have in a single resistor. Resistors have a maximum voltage rating, so a series of resistors might be used across a high voltage. Also, several low power resistors can be combined to handle higher power. What type of connection would you use?


Capacitors are another element used to control the flow of charge in a circuit. The name derives from their capacity to store charge, rather like a small battery. Capacitors consist of two conducting surfaces separated by an insulator; a wire lead is connected to each surface. You can imagine a capacitor as two large metal plates separated by air, although in reality they usually consist of thin metal foils or films separated by plastic film or another solid insulator, and rolled up in a compact package. Consider connecting a capacitor across a battery, as in Fig. 4.6.

Figure 4.6: A simple capacitor connected to a battery through a resistor.
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As soon as the connection is made charge flows from the battery terminals, along the wire and onto the plates, positive charge on one plate, negative charge on the other. Why? The like-sign charges on each terminal want to get away from each other. In addition to that repulsion, there is an attraction to the opposite-sign charge on the other nearby plate. Initially the current is large, because in a sense the charges can not tell immediately that the wire does not really go anywhere, that there is no complete circuit of wire. The initial current is limited by the resistance of the wires, or perhaps by a real resistor, as we have shown in Fig. 4.6. But as charge builds up on the plates, charge repulsion resists the flow of more charge and the current is reduced. Eventually, the repulsive force from charge on the plate is strong enough to balance the force from charge on the battery terminal, and all current stops. Figure 4.7 shows how the current might vary with

Figure 4.7: The time dependence of the current in the circuit of Fig. 4.6 for two values of resistance.
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time for two different values of resistors. For a large resistor, the whole process is slowed because the current is less, but in the end, the same amount of charge must exist on the capacitor plates in both cases. The magnitude of the charge on each plate is equal.

The existence of the separated charges on the plates means there must be a voltage between the plates, and this voltage be equal to the battery voltage when all current stops. After all, since the points are connected by conductors, they should have the same voltage; even if there is a resistor in the circuit, there is no voltage across the resistor if the current is zero, according to Ohm's law. The amount of charge that collects on the plates to produce the voltage is a measure of the value of the capacitor, its capacitance, measured in farads (f). The relationship is C = Q/V , where Q is the charge in Coulombs. Large capacitors have plates with a large area to hold lots of charge, separated by a small distance, which implies a small voltage. A one farad capacitor is extremely large, and generally we deal with microfarads ( f ), one millionth of a farad, or picofarads (pf), one trillionth (10-12) of a farad.

Consider the circuit of Fig. 4.6 again. Suppose we cut the wires after all current has stopped flowing. The charge on the plates is now trapped, so there is still a voltage between the terminal wires. The charged capacitor looks somewhat like a battery now. If we connected a resistor across it, current would flow as the positive and negative charges raced to neutralize each other. Unlike a battery, there is no mechanism to replace the charge on the plates removed by the current, so the voltage drops, the current drops, and finally there is no net charge left and no voltage differences anywhere in the circuit. The behavior in time of the current, the charge on the plates, and the voltage looks just like the graph in Fig. 4.7. This curve is an exponential function: exp(-t/RC) . The voltage, current, and charge fall to about 37% of their starting values in a time of RC seconds, which is called the characteristic time or the time constant of the circuit. The RC time constant is a measure of how fast the circuit can respond to changes in conditions, such as attaching the battery across the uncharged capacitor or attaching a resistor across the charged capacitor. The voltage across a capacitor cannot change immediately; it takes time for the charge to flow, especially if a large resistor is opposing that flow. Thus, capacitors are used in a circuit to damp out rapid changes of voltage.

Combination of Capacitors

Like resistors, capacitors can be joined together in two basic ways: parallel and series. It should be obvious from the physical construction of capacitors that connecting two together in parallel results in a bigger capacitance value. A parallel connection results in bigger capacitor plate area, which means they can hold more charge for the same voltage. Thus, the formula for total capacitance in a parallel circuit is:

CT=C1+C2...+Cn , ........(2)

the same form of equation for resistors in series, which can be confusing unless you think about the physics of what is happening.

The capacitance of a series connection is lower than any capacitor because for a given voltage across the entire group, there will be less charge on each plate. The total capacitance in a series circuit is

CT=1/{{1/C1}+{1/C2}...+{1/Cn}}. ........(3)

Again, this is easy to confuse with the formula for parallel resistors, but there is a nice symmetry here.


Inductors are the third and final type of basic circuit component. An inductor is a coil of wire with many windings, often wound around a core made of a magnetic material, like iron. The properties of inductors derive from a different type of force than the one we invented charge to explain: magnetic force rather than electric force. When current flows through a coil (or any wire) it produces a magnetic field in the space outside the wire, and the coil acts just like any natural, permanent magnet, attracting iron and other magnets. If you move a wire through a magnetic field, a current will be generated in the wire and will flow through the associated circuit. It takes energy to move the wire through the field, and that mechanical energy is transformed to electrical energy. This is how an electrical generator works. If the current through a coil is stopped, the magnetic field must also disappear, but it cannot do so immediately. The field represents stored energy and that energy must go somewhere. The field contracts toward the coil, and the effect of the field moving through the wire of the coil is the same as moving a wire through a stationary field: a current is generated in the coil. This induced current acts to keep the current flowing in the coil; the induced current opposes any change, an increase or a decrease, in the current through the inductor. Inductors are used in circuits to smooth the flow of current and prevent any rapid changes.

The current in an inductor is analogous to the voltage across a capacitor. It takes time to change the voltage across a capacitor, and if you try, a large current flows initially. Similarly, it takes time to change the current through an inductor, and if you insist, say by opening a switch, a large voltage will be produced across the inductor as it tries to force current to flow. Such induced voltages can be very large and can damage other circuit components, so it is common to connect some element, like a resistor or even a capacitor across the inductor to provide a current path and absorb the induced voltage. (Often, a diode, which we will discuss later, is used.)

Inductors are measured in henrys (h), another very big unit, so you are more likely to see millihenries, and microhenries. Motors act like inductors in many ways. In a sense an electric motor is the opposite of an electrical generator. If current flows through a wire that is in a magnetic field (produced either by a permanent magnet or current flowing through a coil), a mechanical force will be generated on the wire. That force can do work. In a motor, the wire that moves through the field and experiences the force is also in the form of a coil of wire, connected mechanically to the shaft of the motor. This coil looks like and acts like an inductor; if you turn off the current (to stop the motor), the coil will still be moving through the magnetic field, and the motor now looks like a generator and can produce a large voltage. The resulting inductive voltage spike can damage components, such as the circuit that controls the motor current. In the past this effect destroyed a lot of motor controller chips and other components.

Combination of Inductors

You already know how inductors act in combination because they act just like resistors. Inductance adds in series. This makes physical sense because two coils of wire connected in series just looks like a longer coil. Parallel connection reduces inductance because the current is split between the several coils and the fields in each are thus weaker.