Variable Frequency Drives (VFDs)
From the Primer:
A variable-frequency drive (VFD) is a device for controlling the rotational speed of an alternating current (AC) electric motor by controlling the frequency of the electrical power supplied to the motor.
Variable frequency drive controllers are solid state electronic power conversion devices. The usual design first converts AC input power to DC intermediate power using a rectifier or converter bridge. The rectifier is usually a three-phase, full-wave-diode bridge. The DC intermediate power is then converted to quasi-sinusoidal AC power using an inverter switching circuit. The inverter circuit is probably the most important section of the VFD, changing DC energy into three channels of AC energy that can be used by an AC motor. These units provide improved power factor, less harmonic distortion, and low sensitivity to the incoming phase sequencing than older phase controlled converter VFD’s. Since incoming power is converted to DC, many units will accept single-phase as well as three-phase input power (acting as a phase converter as well as a speed controller); however the unit must be derated when using single phase input as only part of the rectifier bridge is carrying the connected load.
As new types of semiconductor switches have been introduced they have been applied to inverter circuits at all voltage and current ratings for which suitable devices are available. Introduced in the 1980s, the insulated-gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) became the device used in most VFD inverter circuits in the first decade of the 21st century.
AC motor characteristics require the applied voltage to be proportionally adjusted whenever the frequency is changed in order to deliver the rated torque. For example, if a motor is designed to operate at 460 volts at 60 Hz, the applied voltage must be reduced to 230 volts when the frequency is reduced to 30 Hz. Thus the ratio of volts per hertz must be regulated to a constant value (460/60 = 7.67 V/Hz in this case). For optimum performance, some further voltage adjustment may be necessary especially at low speeds, but constant volts per hertz is the general rule. This ratio can be changed in order to change the torque delivered by the motor.
In addition to this simple volts-per-hertz control more advanced control methods such as vector control and direct torque control (DTC) exist. These methods adjust the motor voltage in such a way that the magnetic flux and mechanical torque of the motor can be precisely controlled.
The usual method used to achieve variable motor voltage is pulse-width modulation (PWM). With PWM voltage control, the inverter switches are used to construct a quasi-sinusoidal output waveform by a series of narrow voltage pulses with pseudosinusoidal varying pulse durations.
Operation of the motors above rated name plate speed (base speed) is possible, but is limited to conditions that do not require more power than the nameplate rating of the motor. This is sometimes called “field weakening” and, for AC motors, means operating at less than rated volts/hertz and above rated name plate speed. Permanent magnet synchronous motors have quite limited field weakening speed range due to the constant magnet flux linkage. Wound rotor synchronous motors and induction motors have much wider speed range. For example, a 100 hp, 460 V, 60 Hz, 1775 RPM (4 pole) induction motor supplied with 460 V, 75 Hz (6.134 V/Hz), would be limited to 60/75 = 80% torque at 125% speed (2218.75 RPM) = 100% power. At higher speeds the induction motor torque has to be limited further due to the lowering of the breakaway torque of the motor. Thus rated power can be typically produced only up to 130…150% of the rated name plate speed. Wound rotor synchronous motors can be run at even higher speeds. In rolling mill drives often 200…300% of the base speed is used. Naturally the mechanical strength of the rotor and the lifetime of the bearings also limit the maximum speed of the motor. Consulting the motor manufacturer is recommended if more than 150% speed is required by the application.
An embedded microprocessor governs the overall operation of the VFD controller. The main microprocessor programming is in firmware that is inaccessible to the VFD user. Some degree of configuration programming and parameter adjustment is usually provided however so that the user can customize the VFD controller to suit specific motor and driven equipment requirements.
The operator interface provides a means for an operator to start and stop the motor and adjust the operating speed. Additional operator control functions might include reversing, and switching between manual speed adjustment and automatic control from an external process control signal. The operator interface often includes an alphanumeric display and/or indication lights and meters to provide information about the operation of the drive. An operator interface keypad and display unit is often provided on the front of the VFD controller as shown in the photograph above. The keypad display can often be cable-connected and mounted a short distance from the VFD controller. Most are also provided with input and output (I/O) terminals for connecting pushbuttons, switches and other operator interface devices or control signals. A serial communications port is also often available to allow the VFD to be configured, adjusted, monitored and controlled using a computer.
When a VFD starts a motor, it initially applies a low frequency and voltage to the motor. The starting frequency is typically 2 Hz or less, starting at such a low frequency avoids the high inrush current that occurs when a motor is started by simply applying the utility (mains) voltage by turning on a switch. After the start of the VFD, the applied frequency and voltage are increased at a controlled rate or ramped up to accelerate the load without drawing excessive current. This starting method typically allows a motor to develop 150% of its rated torque while the VFD is drawing less than 50% of its rated current from the mains in the low speed range. A VFD can be adjusted to produce a steady 150% starting torque from standstill right up to full speed.
Across-the-line single-speed starters start motors abruptly, subjecting the motor to a high starting torque and to current surges that are up to 8 times the full-load current. Variable speed drives instead gradually ramp the motor up to operating speed to lessen mechanical and electrical stress, reducing maintenance and repair costs, and extending the life of the motor and the driven equipment.
Reduced-voltage starting methods also accelerate a motor gradually, but VF drives can be programmed to ramp up the motor much more gradually and smoothly, and can operate the motor at less than full speed to decrease wear and tear. Variable speed drives can also run a motor in specialized patterns to further minimize mechanical and electrical stress. For example, an S-curve pattern can be applied to a conveyor application for smoother decel/accel control, which reduces the backlash that can occur when a conveyor is accelerating or decelerating.