Tesla coil is an electrical resonant transformer circuit designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1899. It is used to produce high-voltage, low-current, high frequency alternating-current electricity. Tesla experimented with a number of different configurations consisting of two, or sometimes three, coupled resonant electric circuits.
Tesla coil is a radio frequency oscillator that drives an air-core double-tuned resonant transformer to produce high voltages at low currents. Tesla’s original circuits as well as most modern coils use a simple spark gap to excite oscillations in the tuned transformer. More sophisticated designs use transistor or thyristor switches or vacuum tube electronic oscillators to drive the resonant transformer.
Tesla coils can produce output voltages from 50 kilovolts to several million volts for large coils. The alternating current output is in the low radio frequency range, usually between 50 kHz and 1 MHz. Although some oscillator-driven coils generate a continuous alternating current, most Tesla coils have a pulsed output; the high voltage consists of a rapid string of pulses of radio frequency alternating current.
The common spark-excited Tesla coil circuit consists of these components:
- A high voltage supply transformer (T), to step the AC mains voltage up to a high enough voltage to jump the spark gap. Typical voltages are between 5 and 30 kilovolts (kV).
- A capacitor (C1) that forms a tuned circuit with the primary winding L1 of the Tesla transformer
- A spark gap (SG) that acts as a switch in the primary circuit
- The Tesla coil (L1, L2), an air-core double-tuned resonant transformer, which generates the high output voltage.
- Optionally, a capacitive electrode (top load) (E) in the form of a smooth metal sphere or torus attached to the secondary terminal of the coil. Its large surface area suppresses premature air breakdown and arc discharges, increasing the Q factor and output voltage.
Tesla used these circuits to conduct innovative experiments in electrical lighting, phosphorescence, X-ray generation, high frequency alternating current phenomena, electrotherapy, and the transmission of electrical energy without wires.
Tesla coil circuits were used commercially in sparkgap radio transmitters for wireless telegraphy until the 1920s, and in medical equipment such as electrotherapy and violet ray devices.
Today, although small Tesla coils are used as leak detectors in scientific high vacuum systems and igniters in arc welders, their main use is entertainment and educational displays.
Scientists working with high vacuum systems test for the presence of tiny pin holes in the apparatus (especially a newly blown piece of glassware) using high-voltage discharges produced by a small handheld Tesla coil.
In 2016, Rice University scientists used the field of a Tesla coil to remotely align tiny carbon nanotubes into a circuit, a process they dubbed “teslaphoresis”.