One of the first electromagnetic rotary motors, if not the first, was invented by Michael Faraday in 1821, and consisted of a free-hanging wire dipping into a pool of mercury. A permanent magnet was placed in the middle of the pool. When a current was passed through the wire, the wire rotated around the magnet, showing that the current gave rise to a circular magnetic field around the wire. This motor is often demonstrated in school physics classes, but brine is sometimes used in place of the toxic mercury. This is the simplest form of a class of electric motors called homopolar motors.
The modern DC motor was invented by accident in 1873, when Zénobe Gramme connected a spinning dynamo to a second similar unit, driving it as a motor.
The classic DC motor has a rotating armature in the form of an electromagnet with two poles. A rotary switch called a commutator reverses the direction of the electric current twice every cycle, to flow through the armature so that the poles of the electromagnet push and pull against the permanent magnets on the outside of the motor. As the poles of the armature electromagnet pass the poles of the permanent magnets, the commutator reverses the polarity of the armature electromagnet. During that instant of switching polarity, inertia keeps the classical motor going in the proper direction.
DC motor speed generally depends on a combination of the voltage and current flowing in the motor coils and the motor load or braking torque. The speed of the motor is proportional to the voltage, and the torque is proportional to the current. The speed is typically controlled by altering the voltage or current flow by using taps in the motor windings or by having a variable voltage supply.
As this type of motor can develop quite high torque at low speed it is often used in traction applications such as locomotives.
However, there are a number of limitations in the classic design, many due to the need for brushes to rub against the commutator. The rubbing creates friction, and the higher the speed, the harder the brushes have to press to maintain good contact. Not only does this friction make the motor noisy, but it also creates an upper limit on the speed and causes the brushes eventually to wear out and to require replacement. The imperfect electric contact also causes electrical noise in the attached circuit. These problems vanish when you turn the motor inside out, putting the permanent magnets on the inside and the coils on the outside thus designing out the need for brushes in a brushless design. However such designs need electronic cuircuits to control the switching of the electromagnets (the function that is performed in conventional motors by the commutator).
Wound field DC motor
The permanent magnets on the outside (stator) of a DC motor may be replaced by electromagnets. By varying the field current it is possible to alter the speed/torque ratio of the motor. Typically the field winding will be placed in series (series wound) with the armature winding to get a high torque low speed motor, in parallel (shunt wound) with the armature to get a high speed low torque motor, or to have a winding partly in parallel, and partly in series (compound wound) to get the best of both worlds. Further reductions in field current are possible to gain even higher speed but correspondingly lower torque. This technique is ideal for electric traction (see Traction motor) and many similar applications where its use can eliminate the requirement for a mechanically variable transmission.
A variant of the wound field DC motor is the universal motor. The name derives from the fact that it may use AC or DC supply current, although in practice they are nearly always used with AC supplies. The principle is that in a wound field DC motor the current in both the field and the armature (and hence the resultant magnetic fields) will alternate (reverse polarity) at the same time, and hence the mechanical force generated is always the same. In practice the motor must be specially designed to cope with the AC current (impedance/reluctance must be taken into account), and the resultant motor is generally less efficient than an equivalent pure DC motor. The advantage of the universal motor is that AC supplies may be used on motors which have the typical characteristics of DC motors, specifically high starting torque and very compact design if high running speeds are used. The negative aspect is the maintenance and reliability problems caused by the commutator, and as a result such motors will rarely be found in industry but are the most common type of AC supplied motor in devices such as food mixers and power tools which are only used intermittently. Infinite speed control of a universal motor running on AC is very easily accomplished using a thyristor circuit while stepped speed control can be accomplished using multiple taps on the field coil. Household blenders that advertise many speeds frequently combine a field coil with several taps and a diode that can be inserted in series with the motor (causing the motor to run on half-wave DC with half the RMS voltage of the AC power line).
Unlike the other common forms of AC motors (induction motors and synchronous motors), universal motors can easily exceed one revolution per cycle of the mains current (that is, exceed 3000 rpm on a 50 Hz system or 3600 rpm on a 60 Hz system). This makes them especially useful for certain appliances such as blenders, vacuum cleaners, and hair dryers where high-speed operation is desired.
With the very low cost of semiconductor rectifiers, some applications that would have previously used a universal motor now use a pure DC motor, usually with a permanent magnet field. This is especially true if the semiconductor circuit is also used for variable-speed control.
Brushless DC motors
Midway between ordinary DC motors and stepper motors lies the realm of the brushless DC motor. Built in a fashion very similar to stepper motors, these often use a permanent magnet external rotor, three phases of driving coils, one or more Hall effect devices to sense the position of the rotor, and the associated drive electronics. The coils are activated, one phase after the other, by the drive electronics as cued by the signals from the Hall effect sensors. In effect, they act as three-phase synchronous motors containing their own variable frequency drive electronics.
Brushless DC motors are commonly used to drive fans, the spindles within CD, CD-ROM (etc.) drives, and mechanisms within office products such as laser printers and photocopiers. They also find significant use in high-performance electric model aircraft. They have several advantages over conventional motors:
Compared to AC fans using shaded-pole motors, they are very efficient, running much cooler than the equivalent AC motors. This cool operation leads to much-improved life of the fan's bearings.
Without a commutator to wear out, the life of a DC brushless motor can be significantly longer compared to a DC motor using brushes and a commutator
The same Hall effect devices that provide the commutation can also provide a convenient tachometer signal for closed-loop control (servo-controlled) applications. In fans, the tachometer signal can be used to derive a "fan okay" signal.
The motor can be easily synchronized to an internal or external clock, leading to precise speed control.
Modern DC brushless motors range in power from a fraction of a watt to many kilowatts.
Coreless DC motors
A coreless DC motor is a specialized form of an ordinary DC motor. Optimized for rapid acceleration, these motors have a rotor that is constructed without any iron core. The rotor can take the form of a winding-filled cylinder inside the stator magnets, a basket surrounding the stator magnets, or a flat pancake (possibly formed on a printed wiring board) running between upper and lower stator magnets. The windings are typically stabilized by being impregnated with epoxy resins.
Because the rotor is much lighter in weight (mass) than a conventional rotor formed from copper windings on steel laminations, the rotor can accelerate much more rapidly, often achieving a mechanical time constant under 1 ms. This is especially true if the windings use aluminum rather than the heavier copper. But because there is no metal mass in the rotor to act as a heat sink, even small coreless motors must often be cooled by forced air.
These motors were commonly used to drive the capstan(s) of magnetic tape drives and are still widely used in high-performance servo-controlled systems.