A potentiometer is a manually adjustable electrical resistor that uses three terminals. In many electrical devices, potentiometers are what establish the levels of output. For example, in a loudspeaker, a potentiometer is used to adjust the volume. In a television set, computer monitor or light dimmer, it can be used to control the brightness of the screen or light bulb.
How It Works
Potentiometers, sometimes called pots, are relatively simple devices. One terminal of the potentiometer is connected to a power source, and another is hooked up to a ground — a point with no voltage or resistance and which serves as a neutral reference point. The third terminal slides across a strip of resistive material. This resistive strip generally has a low resistance at one end, and its resistance gradually increases to a maximum resistance at the other end. The third terminal serves as the connection between the power source and ground, and it usually is operated by the user through the use of a knob or lever.
The user can adjust the position of the third terminal along the resistive strip to manually increase or decrease resistance. The amount of resistance determines how much current flows through a circuit. When used to regulate current, the potentiometer is limited by the maximum resistivity of the strip.
Potentiometers also can be used to control the potential difference, or voltage, across circuits. The setup involved in utilizing a potentiometer for this purpose is a little more complicated. It involves two circuits, with the first circuit consisting of a cell and a resistor. At one end, the cell is connected in series to the second circuit, and at the other end, it is connected to a potentiometer in parallel with the second circuit.
The potentiometer in this arrangement drops the voltage by an amount equal to the ratio between the resistance allowed by the position of the third terminal and the highest possible resistivity of the strip. In other words, if the knob controlling the resistance is positioned at the exact halfway point on the resistive strip, then the output voltage will drop by exactly 50 percent, no matter what the input voltage is. Unlike with electrical current regulation, voltage regulation is not limited by the maximum resistivity of the strip.
When only two of the three terminals are used, the potentiometer acts as a type of variable resistor called a rheostat. One end terminal is used, along with the sliding terminal. Rheostats typically are used to handle higher levels of current or higher voltage than potentiometers. For example, rheostats might be used to control motors in industrial machinery.