AC/DC Converters

Q. What is PFC?

A. Power factor correction (PFC) is a technique of counteracting the undesirable effects of electric loads that create a Power Factor (p.f.) that is less than 1. Power factor correction may be applied either by an electrical power transmission utility to improve the stability and efficiency of the transmission network. Or, correction may be installed by individual electrical customers to reduce the costs charged to them by their electricity supplier.

A typical switch mode power supply first makes a DC bus, using a bridge rectifier or similar circuit. The output voltage is then derived from this DC bus. The problem with this is that the rectifier is a non-linear device, so the input current is highly non-linear. That means that the input current has energy at harmonics of the frequency of the voltage.

This presents a particular problem for the power companies, because they cannot compensate for the harmonic current by adding capacitors or inductors, as they could for the reactive power drawn by a linear load. Many jurisdictions are beginning to legally require PFC for all power supplies above a certain power level.

The simplest way to control the harmonic current is to use a filter: it is possible to design a filter that passes current only at the frequency of the voltage (e.g. 50 or 60 Hz). This filter kills the harmonic current, which means that the non-linear device now looks like a linear load. At this point the power factor can be brought to near unity, using capacitors or inductors asrequired. This filter requires large-value high-current inductors, however, which are bulky and expensive.

It is also possible to perform active PFC. In this case, a boost converter is inserted between the bridge rectifier and the main input capacitors. The boost converter attempts to maintain a constant DC bus voltage on its output while drawing a current that is always in phase with and at the same frequency as the line voltage. Another switchmode converter inside the power supply produces the desired output voltage from the DC bus. This approach requires additional semiconductor switches and control electronics, but permits cheaper and smaller passive components. It is frequently used in practice. Due to their very wide input voltage range, many power supplies with active PFC can automatically adjust to operate on AC power from about 100 V (Japan) to 240 V (UK).