12.3 RLC Series Circuits with AC


By the end of the section, you will be able to:

  • Describe how the current varies in a resistor, a capacitor, and an inductor while in series with an ac power source
  • Use phasors to understand the phase angle of a resistor, capacitor, and inductor ac circuit and to understand what that phase angle means
  • Calculate the impedance of a circuit

The ac circuit shown in Figure 12.3.1, called an RLC series circuit, is a series combination of a resistor, capacitor, and inductor connected across an ac source. It produces an emf of

    \[v(t)=V_0\sin\omega t.\]

(Figure 12.3.1)   \begin{gather*}.\end{gather*}

Figure a shows a circuit with an AC voltage source connected to a resistor, a capacitor and an inductor in series. The source is labeled V0 sine omega t. Figure b shows sine waves of AC voltage and current on the same graph. Voltage has a greater amplitude than current and its maximum value is marked V0 on the y axis. The maximum value of current is marked I0. The two curves have the same wavelength but are out of phase. The voltage curve is labeled V parentheses t parentheses equal to V0 sine omega t. The current curve is labeled I parentheses t parentheses equal to I0 sine parentheses omega t minus phi parentheses.
Figure 12.3.1 (a) An RLC series circuit. (b) A comparison of the generator output voltage and the current. The value of the phase difference \phi depends on the values of R, C, and L.

Since the elements are in series, the same current flows through each element at all points in time. The relative phase between the current and the emf is not obvious when all three elements are present. Consequently, we represent the current by the general expression

    \[i(t)=I_0\sin(\omega t-\phi),\]

where I_0 is the current amplitude and \phi is the phase angle between the current and the applied voltage. The phase angle is thus the amount by which the voltage and current are out of phase with each other in a circuit. Our task is to find I_0 and \phi.

A phasor diagram involving i(t), v_R(t), v_C(t), and v_L(t) is helpful for analyzing the circuit. As shown in Figure 12.3.2, the phasor representing v_R(t) points in the same direction as the phasor for i(t); its amplitude is V_R=I_0R. The v_C(t) phasor lags the i(t) phasor by \pi/2~\mathrm{rad} and has the amplitude V_C=I_0X_C. The phasor for v_L(t) leads the i(t) phasor by \pi/2~\mathrm{rad} and has the amplitude V_L=I_0X_L.

(Figure 12.3.2)   \begin{gather*}.\end{gather*}

Figure shows the coordinate axes, with four arrows starting from the origin. Arrow V subscripts R points up and right, making an angle omega t minus phi with the x axis. Its y intercept is V subscript R parentheses t parentheses. Arrow I0 is along arrow V subscript R, but shorter than it. Arrow V subscript L points up and left and is perpendicular to V subscript R. It makes a y intercept V subscript L parentheses t parentheses. Arrow V subscript C points down and right. It is perpendicular to V subscript R. It makes a y intercept V subscript C parentheses t parentheses. Three arrows labeled omega are each perpendicular to V subscript R, V subscript L and V subscript C, shown near their tips.
Figure 12.3.2 The phasor diagram for the RLC series circuit of Figure 12.3.1.

At any instant, the voltage across the RLC combination is v_R(t)+v_L(t)+v_C(t)=v(t), the emf of the source. Since a component of a sum of vectors is the sum of the components of the individual vectors—for example, (A+B)_y=A_y+B_y—the projection of the vector sum of phasors onto the vertical axis is the sum of the vertical projections of the individual phasors. Hence, if we add vectorially the phasors representing v_R(t), v_L(t), v_C(t) and then find the projection of the resultant onto the vertical axis, we obtain

    \[v_R(t)+v_L(t)+v_C(t)=v(t)=V_0\sin\omega t.\]

The vector sum of the phasors is shown in Figure 12.3.3. The resultant phasor has an amplitude V_0 and is directed at an angle \phi with respect to the v_R(t), or i(t), phasor. The projection of this resultant phasor onto the vertical axis is v(t)=V_0\sin\omega t. We can easily determine the unknown quantities I_0 and \phi from the geometry of the phasor diagram. For the phase angle,


and after cancellation of I_0, this becomes

(12.3.1)   \begin{equation*}\phi=\tan^{-1}\frac{X_L-X_C}{R}.\end{equation*}

Furthermore, from the Pythagorean theorem,


(Figure 12.3.3)   \begin{gather*}.\end{gather*}

Three arrows start from the origin on the coordinate axis. Arrow V subscript R points up and right, making an angle omega t minus phi with the x axis. Arrow V0 points up and right, making an angle omega t with the x axis. It makes an angle phi with the arrow V subscript R. It makes a y intercept labeled V0 sine omega t. The third arrow is labeled V subscript L minus V subscript C. It points up and left and is perpendicular to arrow V subscript R. Dotted lines indicate that the rectangle formed with its longer side being V subscript R and shorter side being V subscript L minus V subscript C, would have the arrow V0 as a diagonal. An arrow labeled omega is shown near the tip of V subscript R, perpendicular to it.
Figure 12.3.3 The resultant of the phasors for v_L(t), v_C(t), and v_R(t) is equal to the phasor for v(t)=V_0\sin\omega t. The i(t) phasor (not shown) is aligned with the v_R(t) phasor.

The current amplitude is therefore the ac version of Ohm’s law:

(12.3.2)   \begin{equation*}I_0=\frac{V_0}{\sqrt{R^2+(X_L-X_C)^2}}=\frac{V_0}{Z},\end{equation*}


(12.3.3)   \begin{equation*}Z=\sqrt{R^2+(X_L-X_C)^2}\end{equation*}

is known as the impedance of the circuit. Its unit is the ohm, and it is the ac analog to resistance in a dc circuit, which measures the combined effect of resistance, capacitive reactance, and inductive reactance (Figure 12.3.4).

(Figure 12.3.4)   \begin{gather*}.\end{gather*}

Photograph of power capacitors at a power station.
Figure 12.3.4 Power capacitors are used to balance the impedance of the effective inductance in transmission lines.

The RLC circuit is analogous to the wheel of a car driven over a corrugated road (Figure 12.3.5). The regularly spaced bumps in the road drive the wheel up and down; in the same way, a voltage source increases and decreases. The shock absorber acts like the resistance of the RLC circuit, damping and limiting the amplitude of the oscillation. Energy within the wheel system goes back and forth between kinetic and potential energy stored in the car spring, analogous to the shift between a maximum current, with energy stored in an inductor, and no current, with energy stored in the electric field of a capacitor. The amplitude of the wheel’s motion is at a maximum if the bumps in the road are hit at the resonant frequency, which we describe in more detail in Resonance in an AC Circuit.

(Figure 12.3.5)   \begin{gather*}.\end{gather*}

Figure shows one wheel of a car. Arrows show the up-down motion of its shock absorber spring.
Figure 12.3.5 On a car, the shock absorber damps motion and dissipates energy. This is much like the resistance in an RLC circuit. The mass and spring determine the resonant frequency.

Problem-Solving Strategy: AC Circuits

To analyze an ac circuit containing resistors, capacitors, and inductors, it is helpful to think of each device’s reactance and find the equivalent reactance using the rules we used for equivalent resistance in the past. Phasors are a great method to determine whether the emf of the circuit has positive or negative phase (namely, leads or lags other values). A mnemonic device of “ELI the ICE man” is sometimes used to remember that the emf (E) leads the current (I) in an inductor (L) and the current (I) leads the emf (E) in a capacitor (C).

Use the following steps to determine the emf of the circuit by phasors:

  1. Draw the phasors for voltage across each device: resistor, capacitor, and inductor, including the phase angle in the circuit.
  2. If there is both a capacitor and an inductor, find the net voltage from these two phasors, since they are antiparallel.
  3. Find the equivalent phasor from the phasor in step 2 and the resistor’s phasor using trigonometry or components of the phasors. The equivalent phasor found is the emf of the circuit.

EXAMPLE 12.3.1

An RLC Series Circuit

The output of an ac generator connected to an RLC series combination has a frequency of 200~\mathrm{Hz} and an amplitude of 0.100~\mathrm{V}. If R=4.00~\Omega, L=3.00\times10^{-3}~\mathrm{H}, and C=8.00\times10^{-4}~\mathrm{F}, what are (a) the capacitive reactance, (b) the inductive reactance, (c) the impedance, (d) the current amplitude, and (e) the phase difference between the current and the emf of the generator?


The reactances and impedance in (a)–(c) are found by substitutions into Equation 12.2.1 , Equation 12.2.6, and Equation 12.3.3, respectively. The current amplitude is calculated from the peak voltage and the impedance. The phase difference between the current and the emf is calculated by the inverse tangent of the difference between the reactances divided by the resistance.


a.     From Equation 12.2.1, the capacitive reactance is

    \[X_C=\frac{1}{\omega C}=\frac{1}{2\pi(200~\mathrm{Hz})(8.00\times10^{-4}~\mathrm{F})}=0.995\Omega.\]

b.     From Equation 12.2.6, the inductive reactance is

    \[X_L=\omega L=2\pi(200~\mathrm{Hz})(3.00\times10^{-3}~\mathrm{H})=3.77~\Omega.\]

c.     Substituting the values of R, X_C, and X_L into Equation 12.3.3, we obtain for the impedance


d.     The current amplitude is


e.     From Equation 12.3.1, the phase difference between the current and the emf is



The phase angle is positive because the reactance of the inductor is larger than the reactance of the capacitor.


Find the voltages across the resistor, the capacitor, and the inductor in the circuit of Figure 12.3.1 using v(t)=V_0\sin\omega t as the output of the ac generator.


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Introduction to Electricity, Magnetism, and Circuits Copyright © 2018 by Daryl Janzen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.