A direct current flows constantly and uniformly throughout the cross-section of a uniform wire. An alternating current of any frequency is forced away from the wire’s center, toward its outer surface. This is because the acceleration of an electric charge in an alternating current produces waves of electromagnetic radiation that cancel the propagation of electricity toward the center of materials with high conductivity. This phenomenon is called skin effect.
At very high frequencies the current no longer flows in the wire, but effectively flows on the surface of the wire, within a thickness of a few skin depths. The skin depth is the thickness at which the current density is reduced by 63%. Even at relatively low frequencies used for high power transmission (50–60 Hz), non-uniform distribution of current still occurs in sufficiently thick conductors. For example, the skin depth of a copper conductor is approximately 8.57 mm at 60 Hz, so high current conductors are usually hollow to reduce their mass and cost.
Since the current tends to flow in the periphery of conductors, the effective cross-section of the conductor is reduced. This increases the effective AC resistance of the conductor, since resistance is inversely proportional to the cross-sectional area in which the current actually flows. The AC resistance often is many times higher than the DC resistance, causing a much higher energy loss due to ohmic heating (also called I^2R loss).
Techniques for reducing AC resistance
For low to medium frequencies, conductors can be divided into stranded wires, each insulated from one other, and the relative positions of individual strands specially arranged within the conductor bundle. Wire constructed using this technique is called Litz wire. This measure helps to partially mitigate skin effect by forcing more equal current flow throughout the total cross section of the stranded conductors. Litz wire is used for making high-Q inductors, reducing losses in flexible conductors carrying very high currents at lower frequencies, and in the windings of devices carrying higher radio frequency current (up to hundreds of kilohertz), such as switch-mode power supplies and radio frequency transformers.
Techniques for reducing radiation loss
As written above, an alternating current is made of electric charge under periodic acceleration, which causes radiation of electromagnetic waves. Energy that is radiated represents a loss. Depending on the frequency, different techniques are used to minimize the loss due to radiation.
At frequencies up to about 1 GHz, pairs of wires are twisted together in a cable, forming a twisted pair. This reduces losses from electromagnetic radiation and inductive coupling. A twisted pair must be used with a balanced signalling system, so that the two wires carry equal but opposite currents. Each wire in a twisted pair radiates a signal, but it is effectively cancelled by radiation from the other wire, resulting in almost no radiation loss.
At frequencies above 1 GHz, unshielded wires of practical dimensions lose too much energy to radiation, so coaxial cables are used instead. A coaxial cable has a conductive wire inside a conductive tube, separated by a dielectric layer. The current flowing on the inner conductor is equal and opposite to the current flowing on the inner surface of the tube. The electromagnetic field is thus completely contained within the tube, and (ideally) no energy is radiation or coupling outside the tube. Coaxial cables have acceptably small losses for frequencies up to about 20 GHz. For microwave frequencies greater than 20 GHz, the losses (due mainly to the dissipation factor of the dielectric) become too large, making waveguides a more efficient medium for transmitting energy.
Waveguides are similar to coax cables, as both consist of tubes, with the biggest difference being that the waveguide has no inner conductor. Waveguides can have any arbitrary cross section, but rectangular cross sections are the most common. Because waveguides do not have an inner conductor to carry a return current, waveguides cannot deliver energy by means of an electric current, but rather by means of a guided electromagnetic field. Although surface currents do flow on the inner walls of the waveguides, those surface currents do not carry power. Power is carried by the guided electromagnetic fields. The surface currents are set up by the guided electromagnetic fields and have the effect of keeping the fields inside the waveguide and preventing leakage of the fields to the space outside the waveguide.
Waveguides have dimensions comparable to the wavelength of the alternating current to be transmitted, so they are only feasible at microwave frequencies. In addition to this mechanical feasibility, electrical resistance of the non-ideal metals forming the walls of the waveguide cause dissipation of power (surface currents flowing on lossy conductors dissipate power). At higher frequencies, the power lost to this dissipation becomes unacceptably large.
At frequencies greater than 200 GHz, waveguide dimensions become impractically small, and the ohmic losses in the waveguide walls become large. Instead, fiber optics, which are a form of dielectric waveguides, can be used. For such frequencies, the concepts of voltages and currents are no longer used.