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A Tesla coil is a radio frequency oscillator that drives a double-tuned resonant transformer to produce high voltages.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 switches or vacuum tube electronic oscillators to drive the resonant transformer.
Tesla coils can produce output voltages from a hundred 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, shown below, consists of these components:
- A high voltage supply transformer 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 that forms a tuned circuit with the primary winding of the Tesla transformer
- A spark gap that acts as a switch in the primary circuit
- The Tesla coil an air-core double-tuned resonant transformer, which generates the high output voltage.
- Optionally, a capacitive electrode (top load) in the form of a smooth metal sphere or torus attached to the secondary terminal of the coil. It's large surface area suppresses premature corona discharge and streamer arcs, increasing the Q factor and output voltage.