So, what is an alternator and what does it do?

An automotive charging system is made up of three major components: the battery, the voltage regulator and an alternator. The alternator works with the battery to generate power for the electrical components of a vehicle, like the interior and exterior lights, and the instrument panel. An alternator gets its name from the term alternating current (AC).

Alternators are typically found near the front of the engine and are driven by the crankshaft, which converts the pistons’ up-and-down movement into circular movement. (To learn more about the basic parts of car engines, read How Car Engines Work.) Some early model vehicles used a separate drive belt from the crankshaft pulley to the alternator pulley, but most cars today have a serpentine belt, or one belt that drives all components that rely on crankshaft power. Most alternators are mounted using brackets that bolt to a specific point on the engine. One of the brackets is usually a fixed point, while the other is adjustable to tighten the drive belt.

Alternators produce AC power through electromagnetism formed through the stator and rotor relationship that we’ll touch on later in the article. The electricity is channelled into the battery, providing voltage to run the various electrical systems. Before we learn more about the mechanics of the alternator and how it generates electricity, let’s look at the various parts of an alternator in the next section.

For the most part, alternators are relatively small and lightweight. Roughly the size of a coconut, the alternators found in most passenger cars and light trucks are constructed using an aluminum outer housing, as the lightweight metal does not magnetize. This is important since aluminum dissipates the tremendous heat generated by producing the electrical power and since the rotor assemblyproduces a magnetic field.

If you closely inspect an alternator, you’ll find it has vents on both the front and back side. Again, this aids in heat dissipation. A drive pulley is attached to the rotor shaft on the front of the alternator. When the engine is running, the crankshaft turns the drive belt, which in turn spins the pulley on the rotor shaft. In essence, the alternator transfers the mechanical energy from the engine into electrical power for the car’s accessories.

On the back side of the alternator you’ll find several terminals (or connecting points in an electrical circuit). Let’s take a look at those:

  • S terminal – Senses battery voltage
  • IG terminal – Ignition switch that turns the voltage regulator on
  • L terminal – Closes the circuit to the warning lamp
  • B terminal – Main alternator output terminal (connected to the battery)
  • F terminal – Full-field bypass for regulator

Cooling is essential to an alternator’s efficiency. It’s easy to spot an older unit by the external fan blades found on the rotor shaft behind the pulley. Modern alternators have cooling fans inside the aluminum housing. These fans operate the same way, using mechanical power from the spinning rotor shaft.

As we start to disassemble the alternator, we find the diode rectifier (or rectifier bridge), the voltage regulatorslip rings and brushes. The regulator distributes the power the alternator creates, and it controls the output of power to the battery. The rectifier bridge converts the power, as we’ll learn in the next section, while the brushes and slip rings help conduct current to the rotor field winding, or wire field. Now let’s crack the coconut open.

Opening the alternator reveals a large cylinder with triangular finger poles around the circumference. This is the rotor. A basic alternator is made up of a series of alternating finger pole pieces placed around coil wires called field windings that wrap around an iron core on the rotor shaft. Since we know the pulley attaches to the shaft, we can now visualise how the rotor spins inside the stator. The rotor assembly fits inside the stator with enough room or tolerance between the two, so the rotor can spin at high speeds without striking the stator wall. On each end of the shaft sits a brush and a slip ring.

As we touched on briefly, alternators generate power through magnetism. The triangular finger poles fixed around the circumference of the rotor are staggered, so the north and south poles alternate as they surround the wire rotor field windings. This alternating pattern creates the magnetic field that in turn induces voltage into the stator. Think of the stator as the catcher’s glove as it harnesses all the power created by the spinning rotor.

All these components work together to give us the power we need to run our vehicles. Tesla captured this electrical energy and used it to light up cities, but we only need enough volts to power our stereo, lights, windows and locks.

(taken from

By |December 1st, 2017|Knowledgebank|Comments Off on So, what is an alternator and what does it do?

About the Author:

Dan is the owner of Auto Electrics QLD and is also a Tradesman Auto Electrician. He loves cricket, cars and his dog Buster :)