Because transformers can step voltage and current to different levels, and because power is transferred equivalently between primary and secondary windings, they can be used to “convert” the impedance of a load to a different level. That last phrase deserves some explanation, so let’s investigate what it means.
The purpose of a load (usually) is to do something productive with the power it dissipates. In the case of a resistive heating element, the practical purpose for the power dissipated is to heat something up. Loads are engineered to safely dissipate a certain maximum amount of power, but two loads of equal power rating are not necessarily identical. Consider these two 1000 watt resistive heating elements: (Figure below)
Both heaters dissipate exactly 1000 watts of power, but they do so at different voltage and current levels (either 250 volts and 4 amps, or 125 volts and 8 amps). Using Ohm’s Law to determine the necessary resistance of these heating elements (R=E/I), we arrive at figures of 62.5 Ω and 15.625 Ω, respectively. If these are AC loads, we might refer to their opposition to current in terms of impedance rather than plain resistance, although in this case that’s all they’re composed of (no reactance). The 250 volt heater would be said to be a higher impedance load than the 125 volt heater.
If we desired to operate the 250 volt heater element directly on a 125 volt power system, we would end up being disappointed. With 62.5 Ω of impedance (resistance), the current would only be 2 amps (I=E/R; 125/62.5), and the power dissipation would only be 250 watts (P=IE; 125 x 2), or one-quarter of its rated power. The impedance of the heater and the voltage of our source would be mismatched, and we couldn’t obtain the full rated power dissipation from the heater.
All hope is not lost, though. With a step-up transformer, we could operate the 250 volt heater element on the 125 volt power system like Figure below.
The ratio of the transformer’s windings provides the voltage step-up and current step-down we need for the otherwise mismatched load to operate properly on this system. Take a close look at the primary circuit figures: 125 volts at 8 amps. As far as the power supply “knows,” its powering a 15.625 Ω (R=E/I) load at 125 volts, not a 62.5 Ω load! The voltage and current figures for the primary winding are indicative of 15.625 Ω load impedance, not the actual 62.5 Ω of the load itself. In other words, not only has our step-up transformer transformed voltage and current, but it has transformed impedance as well.
The transformation ratio of impedance is the square of the voltage/current transformation ratio, the same as the winding inductance ratio:
This concurs with our example of the 2:1 step-up transformer and the impedance ratio of 62.5 Ω to 15.625 Ω (a 4:1 ratio, which is 2:1 squared). Impedance transformation is a highly useful ability of transformers, for it allows a load to dissipate its full rated power even if the power system is not at the proper voltage to directly do so.
Recall from our study of network analysis the Maximum Power Transfer Theorem, which states that the maximum amount of power will be dissipated by a load resistance when that load resistance is equal to the Thevenin/Norton resistance of the network supplying the power. Substitute the word “impedance” for “resistance” in that definition and you have the AC version of that Theorem. If we’re trying to obtain theoretical maximum power dissipation from a load, we must be able to properly match the load impedance and source (Thevenin/Norton) impedance together. This is generally more of a concern in specialized electric circuits such as radio transmitter/antenna and audio amplifier/speaker systems. Let’s take an audio amplifier system and see how it works: (Figure below)
With an internal impedance of 500 Ω, the amplifier can only deliver full power to a load (speaker) also having 500 Ω of impedance. Such a load would drop higher voltage and draw less current than an 8 Ω speaker dissipating the same amount of power. If an 8 Ω speaker were connected directly to the 500 Ω amplifier as shown, the impedance mismatch would result in very poor (low peak power) performance. Additionally, the amplifier would tend to dissipate more than its fair share of power in the form of heat trying to drive the low impedance speaker.
To make this system work better, we can use a transformer to match these mismatched impedances. Since we’re going from a high impedance (high voltage, low current) supply to a low impedance (low voltage, high current) load, we’ll need to use a step-down transformer: (Figure below)
To obtain an impedance transformation ratio of 500:8, we would need a winding ratio equal to the square root of 500:8 (the square root of 62.5:1, or 7.906:1). With such a transformer in place, the speaker will load the amplifier to just the right degree, drawing power at the correct voltage and current levels to satisfy the Maximum Power Transfer Theorem and make for the most efficient power delivery to the load. The use of a transformer in this capacity is called impedance matching.
Anyone who has ridden a multi-speed bicycle can intuitively understand the principle of impedance matching. A human’s legs will produce maximum power when spinning the bicycle crank at a particular speed (about 60 to 90 revolution per minute). Above or below that rotational speed, human leg muscles are less efficient at generating power. The purpose of the bicycle’s “gears” is to impedance-match the rider’s legs to the riding conditions so that they always spin the crank at the optimum speed.
If the rider attempts to start moving while the bicycle is shifted into its “top” gear, he or she will find it very difficult to get moving. Is it because the rider is weak? No, its because the high step-up ratio of the bicycle’s chain and sprockets in that top gear presents a mismatch between the conditions (lots of inertia to overcome) and their legs (needing to spin at 60-90 RPM for maximum power output). On the other hand, selecting a gear that is too low will enable the rider to get moving immediately, but limit the top speed they will be able to attain. Again, is the lack of speed an indication of weakness in the bicyclist’s legs? No, its because the lower speed ratio of the selected gear creates another type of mismatch between the conditions (low load) and the rider’s legs (losing power if spinning faster than 90 RPM). It is much the same with electric power sources and loads: there must be an impedance match for maximum system efficiency. In AC circuits, transformers perform the same matching function as the sprockets and chain (“gears”) on a bicycle to match otherwise mismatched sources and loads.
Impedance matching transformers are not fundamentally different from any other type of transformer in construction or appearance. A small impedance-matching transformer (about two centimeters in width) for audio-frequency applications is shown in the following photograph: (Figure below)
Another impedance-matching transformer can be seen on this printed circuit board, in the upper right corner, to the immediate left of resistors R2 and R1. It is labeled “T1”: (Figure below)