Transmission Line

Transmission line is a specialized cable or other structure designed to conduct electromagnetic waves in a contained manner. The term applies when the conductors are long enough that the wave nature of the transmission must be taken into account.

This applies especially to radio-frequency engineering because the short wavelengths mean that wave phenomena arise over very short distances (this can be as short as millimetres depending on frequency).

However, the theory of transmission lines was historically developed to explain phenomena on very long telegraph lines, especially submarine telegraph cables.

Transmission lines are used for purposes such as connecting radio transmitters and receivers with their antennas, distributing cable television signals, trunklines routing calls between telephone switching centres, computer network connections and high speed computer data buses.

RF engineers commonly use short pieces of transmission line, usually in the form of printed planar transmission lines, arranged in certain patterns to build circuits such as filters. These circuits, known as distributed-element circuits, are an alternative to traditional circuits using discrete capacitors and inductors.

Ordinary electrical cables suffice to carry low frequency alternating current (AC) and audio signals. However, they cannot be used to carry currents in the radio frequency range above about 30 kHz, because the energy tends to radiate off the cable as radio waves, causing power losses.

RF currents also tend to reflect from discontinuities in the cable such as connectors and joints, and travel back down the cable toward the source. These reflections act as bottlenecks, preventing the signal power from reaching the destination.

Transmission lines use specialized construction, and impedance matching, to carry electromagnetic signals with minimal reflections and power losses. The distinguishing feature of most transmission lines is that they have uniform cross sectional dimensions along their length, giving them a uniform impedance, called the characteristic impedance, to prevent reflections.

The higher the frequency of electromagnetic waves moving through a given cable or medium, the shorter the wavelength of the waves. Transmission lines become necessary when the transmitted frequency’s wavelength is sufficiently short that the length of the cable becomes a significant part of a wavelength.

At microwave frequencies and above, power losses in transmission lines become excessive, and waveguides are used instead which function as “pipes” to confine and guide the electromagnetic waves.

At even higher frequencies, in the terahertz, infrared and visible ranges, waveguides in turn become lossy, and optical methods, (such as lenses and mirrors), are used to guide electromagnetic waves.

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