Difference Between AC Induction and DC Brushless Motors

Excerpted from a Tesla Motors Blog Article:

A forerunner of the 3-phase induction motor was invented by Nikola Tesla sometime before 1889. Curiously, the stators for the 3-phase induction motor and the DC brushless motor are virtually identical. Both have three sets of “distributed windings” that are inserted within the stator core. The essential difference between the two machines is with the rotor.

Unlike the DC brushless rotor, the induction rotor has no magnets – just stacked steel laminations with buried peripheral conductors that form a “shorted structure.” Currents flowing in the stator windings produce a rotating magnetic field that enters the rotor. In turn, the frequency of this magnetic field as “seen” by the rotor is equal to the difference between the applied electrical frequency and the rotational “frequency” of the rotor itself. Accordingly, an induced voltage exists across the shorted structure that is proportionate to this speed difference between the rotor and electrical frequency. In response to this voltage, currents are produced within the rotor conductors that are approximately proportionate to the voltage, hence the speed difference. Finally, these currents interact with the original magnetic field to produce forces – a component of which is the desired rotor torque.

When a 3-phase induction motor is connected to utility type 3-phase power, torque is produced at the outset; the motor has the ability to start under load. No inverter is needed. (Were an inverter needed, Tesla’s invention would have been useless until sometime in the 1960s.) The fact that induction motors are directly compatible with conventional utility power is the main reason for their success. In contrast, a brushless DC motor produces no starting torque when directly connected to fixed frequency utility power. They really need the aid of an inverter whose “phase” is maintained in step with the angular position of the rotor.

While 3-phase induction motors have great utility, they also have some severe limitations. They cannot operate from DC; AC is a must. Shaft speed is proportionate to line frequency. Hence, when used with utility power, they are constant speed machines. Finally, when operated from utility power, they have limited starting torque and somewhat limited running peak torque capabilities, when compared to DC type machines.

Add an inverter (without any feedback control) and it becomes possible to power an induction machine from a battery or other DC source; variable speed also becomes possible simply by adjusting the inverter frequency. Still, torque performance is low compared with DC machines. Add some feedback loops such that the inverter produces the exact frequency that the motor “desires,” and the induction motor is now capable of competing with DC and DC brushless for vehicle applications.

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Both DC brushless and induction drives use motors having similar stators. Both drives use 3-phase modulating inverters. The only differences are the rotors and the inverter controls. And with digital controllers, the only control differences are with control code. (DC brushless drives require an absolute position sensor, while induction drives require only a speed sensor; these differences are relatively small.)

One of the main differences is that much less rotor heat is generated with the DC brushless drive. Rotor cooling is easier and peak point efficiency is generally higher for this drive. The DC brushless drive can also operate at unity power factor, whereas the best power factor for the induction drive is about 85 percent. This means that the peak point energy efficiency for a DC brushless drive will typically be a few percentage points higher than for an induction drive.

In an ideal brushless drive, the strength of the magnetic field produced by the permanent magnets would be adjustable. When maximum torque is required, especially at low speeds, the magnetic field strength (B) should be maximum – so that inverter and motor currents are maintained at their lowest possible values. This minimizes the I² R (current² resistance) losses and thereby optimizes efficiency. Likewise, when torque levels are low, the B field should be reduced such that eddy and hysteresis losses due to B are also reduced. Ideally, B should be adjusted such that the sum of the eddy, hysteresis, and I² losses is minimized. Unfortunately, there is no easy way of changing B with permanent magnets.

In contrast, induction machines have no magnets and B fields are “adjustable,” since B is proportionate to V/f (voltage to frequency). This means that at light loads the inverter can reduce voltage such that magnetic losses are reduced and efficiency is maximized. Thus, the induction machine when operated with a smart inverter has an advantage over a DC brushless machine – magnetic and conduction losses can be traded such that efficiency is optimized. This advantage becomes increasingly important as performance is increased. With DC brushless, as machine size grows, the magnetic losses increase proportionately and part load efficiency drops. With induction, as machine size grows, losses do not necessarily grow. Thus, induction drives may be the favored approach where high-performance is desired; peak efficiency will be a little less than with DC brushless, but average efficiency may actually be better.

Permanent magnets are expensive – something like $50 per kilogram. Permanent magnet (PM) rotors are also difficult to handle due to very large forces that come into play when anything ferromagnetic gets close to them. This means that induction motors will likely retain a cost advantage over PM machines. Also, due to the field weakening capabilities of induction machines, inverter ratings and costs appear to be lower, especially for high performance drives. Since spinning induction machines produce little or no voltage when de-excited, they are easier to protect.
I almost forgot: Induction machines are more difficult to control. The control laws are more complex and difficult to understand. Achieving stability over the entire torque-speed range and over temperature is more difficult with induction than with DC brushless. This means added development costs, but likely little or no recurring costs.

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