Understanding Inductance

By R.W. Hurst, Editor

Michael Faraday discovered that by moving a magnet through a coil of wire, a voltage was induced across the coil. If a complete circuit was provided, then a current was also induced. The amount of induced voltage is directly proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic field with respect to the coil. The simplest of experiments can prove that when a bar magnet is moved through a coil of wire, a voltage is induced and can be measured on a voltmeter. This is commonly known as Faraday’s Law or the law of electromagnetic induction, which states:

The induced emf or electromagnetic force in a closed loop of wire is proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic flux through a coil of wire.

Conversely, current flowing through a coil of wire produces a magnetic field. When this wire is formed into a coil, it then becomes a basic inductor. The magnetic lines of force around each loop or turn in the coil effectively add to the lines of force around the adjoining loops. This forms a strong magnetic field within and around the coil. Figure 1A, illustrates this idea of a coil of wire strengthening a magnetic field. The magnetic lines of force around adjacent loops are deflected into an outer path when the loops are brought close together. This happens because the magnetic lines of force between adjacent loops are in opposition with each other. The total magnetic field for the two loops close together, the strength of the magnetic field will increase. Figure 10-118C illustrates the combined effects of many loops of a coil. The result is a strong electromagnet.

Fig. 1 - Many loops of a coil.


The primary aspect of the operation of a coil is its property to oppose any change in current through it. This property is called inductance. When current flows through any conductor, a magnetic field starts to expand from the center of the wire. As the lines of magnetic force grow outward through the conductor, they induce an emf in the conductor itself. The induced voltage is always in the direction opposite to the direction of the current flow. The effects of this countering emf are to oppose the immediate establishment of the maximum current. This effect is only a temporary condition. Once the current reaches a steady value in the conductor, the lines of magnetic force will no longer be expanding and the countering emf will no longer be present.

At the starting instant, the countering emf nearly equals the applied voltage, resulting in a small current flow. However, as the lines of force move outward, the number of lines cutting the conductor per second becomes progressively smaller, resulting in a diminished counter emf. Eventually, the counter emf drops to zero and the only voltage in the circuit is the applied voltage and the current is at its maximum value.


The RL Time Constant

Because the inductors basic action is to oppose a change in its current, it then follows that the current cannot change instantaneously in the inductor. A certain time is required for the current to make a change from one value to another. The rate at which the current changes is determined by a time constant represented by the greek letter tau (τ). The time constant for the RL circuit is:


In a series RL circuit, the current will increase to 63% of its full value in 1 time constant after the circuit is closed. This build up of course is similar to the build up of voltage in a capacitor when charging an RC circuit. Both follow an exponential curve and reach 99% value after the 5th time constant. Figure 2 illustrates this characteristic.



Physical Parameters
Some of the physical factors that affect inductance are:

  1. The number of turns: Doubling the number of turns in a coil will produce a field twice as strong, if the same current is used. As a general rule, the inductance varies as the square of the number of turns.
  2. The cross-sectional area of the coil: The inductance of a coil increases directly as the cross-sectional area of the core increases. Doubling the radius of a coil increases the inductance by a factor of four.
  3. The length of a coil: Doubling the length of a coil, while keeping the same number of turns, halves the value of inductance.
  4. The core material around which the coil is formed: Coils are wound on either magnetic or nonmagnetic materials. Some nonmagnetic materials include air, copper, plastic, and glass. Magnetic materials include nickel, iron, steel, or cobalt, which have a permeability that provides a better path for the magnetic lines of force and permit a stronger magnetic field. 


The characteristic of self-inductance was summarized by German physicist Heinrich Lenz in 1833 and gives the direction of the induced electromotive force (emf) resulting from electromagnetic induction. This is commonly known as Lenz’s Law, which states:

"The emf induced in an electric circuit always acts in such a direction that the current it drives around a closed circuit produces a magnetic field which opposes the change in magnetic flux."

Self inductance is the generation of a voltage in an electric circuit by a changing current in the same circuit. Even a straight piece of wire will have some degree of inductance because current in a conductor produces a magnetic field. When the current in a conductor changes direction, there will be a corresponding change in the polarity of the magnetic field around the conductor. Therefore, a changing current produces a changing magnetic field around the wire.

To further intensify the magnetic field, the wire can be rolled into a coil, which is called an inductor. The changing magnetic field around the inductor induces a voltage across the coil. This induced electromotive force is called self-inductance and tends to oppose any change in current within the circuit. This property is usually called inductance and symbolized with the letter L. 


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