Alternators are used in modern automobiles to charge the battery and to power a car's electric system when its engine is running. Alternators have the great advantage over direct-current generators of not using a commutator, which makes them simpler, lighter, less costly, more rugged than a DC generator, and the slip rings allow for greatly extended brush life. The stronger construction of automotive alternators allows them to use a smaller pulley so as to turn faster than the engine, improving output when the engine is idling. The availability of low-cost solid-state diodes from about 1960 onward allowed car manufacturers to substitute alternators for DC generators. Automotive alternators use a set of rectifiers (diode bridge) to convert AC to DC. To provide direct current with low ripple, automotive alternators have a three-phase winding.
Typical passenger vehicle and light truck alternators use Lundell or claw-pole field construction, where the field north and south poles are all energized by a single winding, with the poles looking rather like fingers of two hands interlocked with each other. Larger vehicles may have salient-pole alternators similar to larger machines. The automotive alternator is usually belt driven at 2-3 times the engine crankshaft speed. Automotive alternators are not restricted to a certain RPM because the alternating current is rectified to direct current and need not be any constant frequency.
Modern automotive alternators have a voltage regulator built into them. The voltage regulator operates by modulating the small field current in order to produce a constant voltage at the stator output. The field current is much smaller than the output current of the alternator; for example, a 70-amp alternator may need only 2 amps of field current. The field current is supplied to the rotor windings by slip rings and brushes. The low current and relatively smooth slip rings ensure greater reliability and longer life than that obtained by a DC generator with its commutator and higher current being passed through its brushes.
Where the brushes in a generator are relatively accessible for service and replacement, the alternator's brushes are not. The alternator usually must be disassembled to reach and change the brushes. However, the smooth slip rings cause so little brush wear that they may be said to last the life of the alternator.
Efficiency of automotive alternators is limited by fan cooling loss, bearing loss, iron loss, copper loss, and the voltage drop in the diode bridges; at part load, efficiency is between 50-62% depending on the size of alternator, and varies with alternator speed. In comparison, very small high-performance permanent magnet alternators, such as those used for bicycle lighting systems, achieve an efficiency around 60%. Larger permanent magnet alternators can achieve much higher efficiency. By contrast, the large AC generators used in power stations run at carefully controlled speeds and have no constraints on size or weight. Consequently, they have much higher efficiencies, on the order of 98% from shaft to AC output power.
The field windings are initially supplied via the ignition switch and charge warning light, which is why the light glows when the ignition is on but the engine is not running. Once the engine is running and the alternator is generating, a diode feeds the field current from the alternator main output, thus equalizing the voltage across the warning light which goes out. The wire supplying the field current is often referred to as the "exciter" wire. The drawback of this arrangement is that if the warning light fails or the "exciter" wire is disconnected, no excitation current reaches the alternator field windings and so the alternator, due to low residual magnetism in the rotor will not generate any power. However, some alternators will self-excite when the engine is revved to a certain speed. The driver may check for a faulty exciter-circuit by ensuring that the warning light is glowing with the engine stopped.
Very large automotive alternators used on buses, heavy equipment or emergency vehicles may produce 300 amperes. Very old automobiles with minimal lighting and electronic devices may have only a 30 ampere alternator. Typical passenger car and light truck alternators are rated around 50-70 amperes, though higher ratings are becoming more common. Very large automotive alternators may be water-cooled or oil-cooled.
Many alternator voltage regulators are today linked to the vehicle's on board computer system, and in recent years other factors including air temperature (obtained from the mass air flow sensor in many cases) and engine load are considered in adjusting the battery charging voltage supplied by the alternator.