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I'm just a bit confused about what is actually happening when a wave goes up and down. It's a graph of voltage vs. time, so therefore wouldn't that mean the voltage was going up and down constantly? But why? Also, with capacitors, what do they actually do that results in the wave being smoothed out. I understand that they hold charge, but why does this result in the smoothing out of the wave form? what actually happens inside the circuit?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What why? Waves on the ocean go above and below sea level quite often. \$\endgroup\$ – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams May 16 '16 at 22:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Waves are waves and are not voltages. Show the circuit you refer to. \$\endgroup\$ – Andy aka May 17 '16 at 7:43
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Yes, the voltage is going "up and down" - this is called "alternating current" and is the power that arrives at your house from generating plants such as dams.

Consider just how that wave you are looking at is generated: in its simplest form, there is a magnet rotating inside a coil of wire. At some point the north and south poles of the magnet are aligned in a direction that produces a maximum positive voltage, then the magnet rotates around and that produces a maximum negative voltage. The waves you see reflect the voltage that is produced in the coil and the wires as the magnet rotates at high speed.

The capacitor is able to smooth out the rise and fall in the following way: when current is flowing and the voltage is rising, the capacitor charges; when the current starts to reverse and the voltage falls, the capacitor discharges back into the circuit - which serves to counteract the falling voltage. This is a highly simplified explanation - a basic book on electronics should answer this and provide diagrams - look for the section on "voltage rectification" and power supplies.

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Yes, the voltage is going up and down constantly. We call that "AC" for Alternating Current. That is what is used virtually everywhere on this planet for distributing utility power. The other major type of current is "DC" for Direct Current. That is what comes out of a battery, for example.

As to why AC is used for power distribution, that question has been asked and answered several times here on StackExchange. For example...

Capacitors basically store a charge, but in the Real World, that basic effect is used for many purposes in electrical and electronic circuits. They are used for "AC coupling" where we want to allow an AC signal (such as audio) to pass through, but we need to block the DC part of the signal. Or, as you suggest, we use them to "smooth out" a signal to make it more uniform, like when making a power supply that rectifies that AC mains power into the DC that most electronic circuits operate on.

There are perhaps a dozen explanations of how a capacitor works and some of them may help answer you question better than others. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Capacitors, and especially the Applications section, you will see a summary of the most typical applications, and hyperlinks to better descriptions of them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you. But why does a current that is constantly changing direction mean that the voltage is changing? Also, does the DC signal always need to be blocked and why? \$\endgroup\$ – Sarah Larry May 16 '16 at 22:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Alternating current describes the flow of charge that changes direction periodically. As a result, the voltage level also reverses along with the current." Does this just mean when the current reverses in direction, that instead of a voltage drop occurring it gains the voltage back? \$\endgroup\$ – Sarah Larry May 16 '16 at 22:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SarahLarry: It means that the voltage drops in the other direction. \$\endgroup\$ – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams May 16 '16 at 22:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Voltage and Current are directly dependent. There is a simple formula for calculating current from voltage or vice-versa. It is called Ohm's Law. The current direction and amplitude change exactly with the voltage alternation. In many (most) cases, when we amplify or otherwise operate on an AC signal, the end result is the AC signal superimposed upon (added to) a DC voltage. Typically the DC factor is unwanted and undesirable, so we can easily block it with a capacitor. In a crude definition, the capacitor "remembers" the DC voltage differential and "subtracts" it from the AC signal. \$\endgroup\$ – Richard Crowley May 16 '16 at 22:51

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