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A polyphase system is a means of distributing alternating current electrical power. Polyphase systems have three or more energized electrical conductors carrying alternating currents with a definite time offset between the voltage waves in each conductor. Polyphase systems are particularly useful for transmitting power to electric motors. The most common example is the three-phase power system used for industrial applications and for power transmission. The most obvious advantage of three phase power transmission using three wires, as compared to single phase power transmission over two wires, is that the power transmitted in the three phase system is the voltage multiplied by the current in each wire times the square root of three (approximately 1.73). The power transmitted by the single phase system is simply the voltage multiplied by the current. Thus the three phase system transmits 73% more power but uses only 50% more wire.

One voltage cycle of a three-phase system.



In the very early days of commercial electric power, some installations used two phase four-wire systems for motors. The chief advantage of these was that the winding configuration was the same as for a single-phase capacitor-start motor, and, by using a four-wire system, conceptually the phases were independent and easy to analyze with mathematical tools available at the time. Two-phase systems have been replaced with three-phase systems. A two-phase supply with 90 degrees between phases can be derived from a three-phase system using a Scott-connected transformer.

A polyphase system must provide a defined direction of phase rotation, so mirror image voltages do not count towards the phase order. A 3-wire system with two phase conductors 180 degrees apart is still only single phase. Such systems are sometimes described as split phase.


Polyphase power is particularly useful in AC motors, such as the induction motor, where it generates a rotating magnetic field. When a three-phase supply completes one full cycle, the magnetic field of a two-pole motor has rotated through 360° in physical space; motors with more pairs of poles require more power supply cycles to complete one physical revolution of the magnetic field, and so these motors run slower. Nikola Tesla and Michail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky invented the first practical induction motors using a rotating magnetic field - previously all commercial motors were DC, with expensive commutators, high-maintenance brushes, and characteristics unsuitable for operation on an alternating current network. Polyphase motors are simple to construct, are self-starting, and have little vibration compared with single-phase motors.

Higher phase order

Higher phase numbers than three have been used. A common practice for rectifier installations and in HVDC converters is to provide six phases, with 60 degree phase spacing, to reduce harmonic generation in the AC supply system and to provide smoother direct current. Experimental high-phase-order transmission lines have been built with up to 12 phases. These allow application of Extra High Voltage (EHV) design rules at lower voltages, and would permit increased power transfer in the same transmission line corridor width.

See also

Further reading



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