Rotating Magnetic Fields, Explained

If you made a motor out of a magnet, a wire coil, and some needles, you probably remember that motors and generators depend on a rotating magnetic field. Once you know how it works, the concept is pretty simple, but did you ever wonder who worked it all out to start with? Tesla figures into it, unsurprisingly. But what about Michael Dobrowolsky or Walter Bailey? Not common names to most people. [Learn Engineering] has a slick video covering the history and theory of rotating magnetic field machines, and you can watch it below.

Motors operated on direct current were not very practical at the time and caused a jerky motion. However, Tesla and another inventor named Ferraris realized that AC current could cause a rotating magnetic field without a moving commutator.

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Car Alternators Make Great Electric Motors; Here’s How

The humble automotive alternator hides an interesting secret. Known as the part that converts power from internal combustion into the electricity needed to run everything else, they can also themselves be used as an electric motor.

The schematic of a simple automotive alternator, from US patent 3329841A filed in 1963 for Robert Bosch GmbH .
The schematic of a simple automotive alternator, from US patent 3329841A filed in 1963 for Robert Bosch GmbH.

These devices almost always take the form of a 3-phase alternator with the magnetic component supplied by an electromagnet on the rotor, and come with a rectifier and regulator pack to convert the higher AC voltage to 12V for the car electrical systems. Internally they have three connections to the stator coils which appear to be universally wired in a delta configuration, and a pair of connections to a set of brushes supplying the rotor coils through a set of slip rings. They have a surprisingly high capacity, and estimates put their capabilities as motors in the several horsepower. Best of all they are readily available second-hand and also surprisingly cheap, the Ford Focus unit shown here came from an eBay car breaker and cost only £15 (about $20).

We already hear you shouting “Why?!” at your magical internet device as you read this. Let’s jump into that.

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Reusing Motors From Washing Machines

Big ol’ motors are great when you need to get a big job done, but they can be expensive or hard to source new. However, there’s a source of big, fat, juicy motors right at home for most people – the garden variety washing machine. These motors would usually require a special controller, however [Jerry] is here to show us how to hack the controller that comes with the machine.

The hack begins as [Jerry] decides to gut a Maytag MAH7500 Neptune front loader. Many projects exist that borrow the motor but rely on a seperately sourced variable frequency drive, so the goal was to see if the machine’s original controller was usable. The machine was first troubleshooted using a factory service mode, which spins the drum at a set speed if everything is working correctly.

From there, it was a relatively simple job to source the machine schematics to identify the pinouts of the various connectors.  After some experimentation with a scope and a function generator, [Jerry] was able to get the motor spinning with the original controller doing the hard work.

It’s a simple hack, and one that relies on the availability of documentation to get the job done, but it’s a great inspiration for anyone else looking to drive similar motors in their own projects. The benefit is that by using the original motor controller, you can be confident that it’s properly rated for the motor on hand.

Perhaps instead of an induction motor, you’d rather drive a high powered brushless DC motor? This project can help.