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Discussion: Series Combinations of Resistors

Two elements are said to be in series whenever the same current physically flows through both of the elements. The critical point is that the same current flows through both resistors when two are in series. The particular configuration does not matter. The only thing that matters is that exactly the same current flows through both resistors. Current flows into one element, through the element, out of the element into the other element, through the second element and out of the second element. No part of the current that flows through one resistor "escapes" and none is added. This figure shows several different ways that two resistors in series might appear as part of a larger circuit diagram.

An example of series resistors is in house wiring. The leads from the service entrance enter a distribution box, and then wires are strung throughout the house. The current flows out of the distribution box, through one of the wires, then perhaps through a light bulb, back through the other wire. We might model that situation with the circuit diagram shown below.

In many electronic circuits series resistors are used to get a different voltage across one of the resistors. We'll look at those circuits, called voltage dividers, in a short while. Here's the circuit diagram for a voltage divider.

Besides resistors in series, we can also have other elements in series - capacitors, inductors, diodes. These elements can be in series with other elements. For example, the simplest form of filter, for filtering low frequency noise out of a signal, can be built just by putting a resistor in series with a capacitor, and taking the output as the capacitor voltage. As we go along you'll have lots of opportunity to use and to expand what you learn about series combinations as you study resistors in series.

Let's look at the model again. We see that the wires are actually small resistors (small value of resistance, not necessarily physically small) in series with the light bulb, which is also a resistor. We have three resistors in series although two of the resistors are small. We know that the resistors are in series because all of the current that flows out of the distribution box through the first wire also flows through the light bulb and back through the second wire, thus meeting our condition for a series connection. Trace that out in the circuit diagram and the pictorial representation above. Let us consider the simplest case of a series resistor connection, the case of just two resistors in series. We can perform a thought experiment on these two resistors. Here is the circuit diagram for the situation we're interested in.

Imagine that they are embedded in an opaque piece of plastic, so that we only have access to the two nodes at the ends of the series connection, and the middle node is inaccessible. If we measured the resistance of the combination, what would we find? To answer that question we need to define voltage and current variables for the resistors. If we take advantage of the fact that the current through them is the same (Apply KCL at the interior node if you are unconvinced!) then we have the situation below.

Note that we have defined a voltage across each resistor (Va and Vb) and current that flows through both resistors (Is) and a voltage variable, Vs, for the voltage that appears across the series combination.

Let's list what we know.

The current through the two resistors is the same. The voltage across the series combination is given by: Vs= Va + Vb The voltages across the two resistors are given by Ohm's Law: Va = Is Ra Vb = Is Rb We can combine all of these relations, and when we do that we find the following. Vs= Va + Vb Vs= Is Ra + Is Rb

Vs= Is (Ra + Rb) Vs= Is Rseries

Here, we take Rseries to be the series equivalent of the two resistors in series, and the expression for Rseries is: Rseries = Ra + Rb What do we mean by series equivalent? Here are some points to observe.

If current and voltage are proportional, then the device is a resistor. We have shown that Vs= Is Rseries, so that voltage is proportional to current, and the constant of proportionality is a resistance. We will call that the equivalent series resistance.

There is also a mental picture to use when considering equivalent series resistance. Imagine that you have two globs of black plastic. Each of the globs of black plasic has two wires coming out. Inside these two black plastic globs you have the following. In the first glob you have two resistors in series. Only the leads of the series combination are available for measurement externally. You have no way to penetrate the box and measure things at the interior node. In the second box you have a single resistor that is equal to the series equivalent. Only the leads of this resistor are available for measurement externally. Then, if you measured the resistance using the two available leads in the two different cases you would not be able to tell which black plastic glob had the single resistor and which one had the series combination. Here are two resistors. At the top are two 2000W resistors. At the bottom is single 4000W resistors. (Note, these are not exactly standard sizes so it took a lot of hunting to find a supply store that sold them!). You can click the green button to grow blobs around them.

After you have grown the blobs around the resistors there is no electrical measurement you can make that will allow you to tell which one has two resistors and which one has one resistor. They are electrically indistinguishable! (Or, in other words, they are equivalent!)