Electric motors produce linear or rotary force (torque) intended to propel some external mechanism, such as a fan or an elevator. An electric motor is generally designed for continuous rotation, or for linear movement over a significant distance compared to its size. Magnetic solenoids are also transducers that convert electrical power to mechanical motion, but can produce motion over only a limited distance.
Electric motors are much more efficient than the other prime mover used in industry and transportation, the internal combustion engine (ICE); electric motors are typically over 95% efficient while ICEs are well below 50%. They are also lightweight, physically smaller, are mechanically simpler and cheaper to build, can provide instant and consistent torque at any speed, can run on electricity generated by renewable sources and do not exhaust carbon into the atmosphere. For these reasons electric motors are replacing internal combustion in transportation and industry, although their use in vehicles is currently limited by the high cost and weight of batteries that can give sufficient range between charges.
Electric motors operate on three distinct physical principles: magnetism, electrostatics and piezoelectricity.
In magnetic motors, magnetic fields are formed in both the rotor and the stator. The product between these two fields gives rise to a force, and thus a torque on the motor shaft. One, or both, of these fields must change with the rotation of the rotor. This is done by switching the poles on and off at the right time, or varying the strength of the pole.
The main types are DC motors and AC motors,with the latter replacing the former.
AC electric motors are either asynchronous or synchronous.
Once started, a synchronous motor requires synchrony with the moving magnetic field's speed for all normal torque conditions.
In synchronous machines, the magnetic field must be provided by means other than induction, such as from separately excited windings or permanent magnets.
A fractional-horsepower motor either has a rating below about 1 horsepower (0.746 kW), or is manufactured with a standard-frame size smaller than a standard 1 HP motor. Many household and industrial motors are in the fractional-horsepower class.
A commutated DC motor has a set of rotating windings wound on an armature mounted on a rotating shaft. The shaft also carries the commutator, a long-lasting rotary electrical switch that periodically reverses the flow of current in the rotor windings as the shaft rotates. Thus, every brushed DC motor has AC flowing through its rotating windings. Current flows through one or more pairs of brushes that bear on the commutator; the brushes connect an external source of electric power to the rotating armature.
The rotating armature consists of one or more coils of wire wound around a laminated, magnetically "soft" ferromagnetic core. Current from the brushes flows through the commutator and one winding of the armature, making it a temporary magnet (an electromagnet). The magnetic field produced by the armature interacts with a stationary magnetic field produced by either PMs or another winding (a field coil), as part of the motor frame. The force between the two magnetic fields tends to rotate the motor shaft. The commutator switches power to the coils as the rotor turns, keeping the magnetic poles of the rotor from ever fully aligning with the magnetic poles of the stator field, so that the rotor never stops (as a compass needle does), but rather keeps rotating as long as power is applied.
Many of the limitations of the classic commutator DC motor are due to the need for brushes to press against the commutator. This creates friction. Sparks are created by the brushes making and breaking circuits through the rotor coils as the brushes cross the insulating gaps between commutator sections. Depending on the commutator design, this may include the brushes shorting together adjacent sections—and hence coil ends—momentarily while crossing the gaps. Furthermore, the inductance of the rotor coils causes the voltage across each to rise when its circuit is opened, increasing the sparking of the brushes.
This sparking limits the maximum speed of the machine, as too-rapid sparking will overheat, erode, or even melt the commutator. The current density per unit area of the brushes, in combination with their resistivity, limits the output of the motor. The making and breaking of electric contact also generates electrical noise; sparking generates RFI. Brushes eventually wear out and require replacement, and the commutator itself is subject to wear and maintenance (on larger motors) or replacement (on small motors). The commutator assembly on a large motor is a costly element, requiring precision assembly of many parts. On small motors, the commutator is usually permanently integrated into the rotor, so replacing it usually requires replacing the whole rotor.