Subjects in electrical engineering include power generation, automation and control, semiconductors, and information technology (radio waves and computer). To meet new needs, electrical engineering produced new specialties, such as electronic engineering and software engineering.
Electrical engineering has many subdisciplines, the most common of which are listed below. Although there are electrical engineers who focus exclusively on one of these subdisciplines, many deal with a combination of them. Sometimes certain fields, such as electronic engineering and computer engineering, are considered separate disciplines in their own right.
Power engineering deals with the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity as well as the design of a range of related devices. These include transformers, electric generators, electric motors, high voltage engineering, and power electronics. In many regions of the world, governments maintain an electrical network called a power grid that connects a variety of generators together with users of their energy. Users purchase electrical energy from the grid, avoiding the costly exercise of having to generate their own. Power engineers may work on the design and maintenance of the power grid as well as the power systems that connect to it. Such systems are called on-grid power systems and may supply the grid with additional power, draw power from the grid, or do both. Power engineers may also work on systems that do not connect to the grid, called off-grid power systems, which in some cases are preferable to on-grid systems. The future includes Satellite controlled power systems, with feedback in real time to prevent power surges and prevent blackouts.
Control engineering focuses on the modeling of a diverse range of dynamic systems and the design of controllers that will cause these systems to behave in the desired manner. To implement such controllers, electrical engineers may use electronic circuits, digital signal processors, microcontrollers, and programmable logic controls (PLCs). Control engineering has a wide range of applications from the flight and propulsion systems of commercial airliners to the cruise control present in many modern automobiles. It also plays an important role in industrial automation.
Control engineers often utilize feedback when designing control systems. For example, in an automobile with cruise control the vehicle's speed is continuously monitored and fed back to the system which adjusts the motor's power output accordingly. Where there is regular feedback, control theory can be used to determine how the system responds to such feedback.
Electronic engineering involves the design and testing of electronic circuits that use the properties of components such as resistors, capacitors, inductors, diodes, and transistors to achieve a particular functionality. The tuned circuit, which allows the user of a radio to filter out all but a single station, is just one example of such a circuit. Another example to research is a pneumatic signal conditioner.
Prior to the Second World War, the subject was commonly known as radio engineering and basically was restricted to aspects of communications and radar, commercial radio, and early television. Later, in post war years, as consumer devices began to be developed, the field grew to include modern television, audio systems, computers, and microprocessors. In the mid-to-late 1950s, the term radio engineering gradually gave way to the name electronic engineering.
Before the invention of the integrated circuit in 1959, electronic circuits were constructed from discrete components that could be manipulated by humans. These discrete circuits consumed much space and power and were limited in speed, although they are still common in some applications. By contrast, integrated circuits packed a large number—often millions—of tiny electrical components, mainly transistors, into a small chip around the size of a coin. This allowed for the powerful computers and other electronic devices we see today.
Microelectronics engineering deals with the design and microfabrication of very small electronic circuit components for use in an integrated circuit or sometimes for use on their own as a general electronic component. The most common microelectronic components are semiconductor transistors, although all main electronic components (resistors, capacitors etc.) can be created at a microscopic level. Nanoelectronics is the further scaling of devices down to nanometer levels. Modern devices are already in the nanometer regime, with below 100 nm processing having been standard since about 2002.
Microelectronic components are created by chemically fabricating wafers of semiconductors such as silicon (at higher frequencies, compound semiconductors like gallium arsenide and indium phosphide) to obtain the desired transport of electronic charge and control of current. The field of microelectronics involves a significant amount of chemistry and material science and requires the electronic engineer working in the field to have a very good working knowledge of the effects of quantum mechanics.
Signal processing deals with the analysis and manipulation of signals. Signals can be either analog, in which case the signal varies continuously according to the information, or digital, in which case the signal varies according to a series of discrete values representing the information. For analog signals, signal processing may involve the amplification and filtering of audio signals for audio equipment or the modulation and demodulation of signals for telecommunications. For digital signals, signal processing may involve the compression, error detection and error correction of digitally sampled signals.
Signal Processing is a very mathematically oriented and intensive area forming the core of digital signal processing and it is rapidly expanding with new applications in every field of electrical engineering such as communications, control, radar, audio engineering, broadcast engineering, power electronics, and biomedical engineering as many already existing analog systems are replaced with their digital counterparts. Analog signal processing is still important in the design of many control systems.
DSP processor ICs are found in every type of modern electronic systems and products including, SDTV | HDTV sets, radios and mobile communication devices, Hi-Fi audio equipment, Dolby noise reduction algorithms, GSM mobile phones, mp3 multimedia players, camcorders and digital cameras, automobile control systems, noise cancelling headphones, digital spectrum analyzers, intelligent missile guidance, radar, GPS based cruise control systems, and all kinds of image processing, video processing, audio processing, and speech processing systems.
Telecommunications engineering focuses on the transmission of information across a channel such as a coax cable, optical fiber or free space. Transmissions across free space require information to be encoded in a carrier signal to shift the information to a carrier frequency suitable for transmission; this is known as modulation. Popular analog modulation techniques include amplitude modulation and frequency modulation. The choice of modulation affects the cost and performance of a system and these two factors must be balanced carefully by the engineer.
Once the transmission characteristics of a system are determined, telecommunication engineers design the transmitters and receivers needed for such systems. These two are sometimes combined to form a two-way communication device known as a transceiver. A key consideration in the design of transmitters is their power consumption as this is closely related to their signal strength. If the signal strength of a transmitter is insufficient the signal's information will be corrupted by noise.
Instrumentation engineering deals with the design of devices to measure physical quantities such as pressure, flow, and temperature. The design of such instrumentation requires a good understanding of physics that often extends beyond electromagnetic theory. For example, flight instruments measure variables such as wind speed and altitude to enable pilots the control of aircraft analytically. Similarly, thermocouples use the Peltier-Seebeck effect to measure the temperature difference between two points.
Often instrumentation is not used by itself, but instead as the sensors of larger electrical systems. For example, a thermocouple might be used to help ensure a furnace's temperature remains constant. For this reason, instrumentation engineering is often viewed as the counterpart of control.
Computer engineering deals with the design of computers and computer systems. This may involve the design of new hardware, the design of PDAs, tablets, and supercomputers, or the use of computers to control an industrial plant. Computer engineers may also work on a system's software. However, the design of complex software systems is often the domain of software engineering, which is usually considered a separate discipline. Desktop computers represent a tiny fraction of the devices a computer engineer might work on, as computer-like architectures are now found in a range of devices including video game consoles and DVD players.
Mechatronics is an engineering discipline which deals with the convergence of electrical and mechanical systems. Such combined systems are known as electromechanical systems and have widespread adoption. Examples include automated manufacturing systems, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, and various subsystems of aircraft and automobiles.
The term mechatronics is typically used to refer to macroscopic systems but futurists have predicted the emergence of very small electromechanical devices. Already, such small devices, known as Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), are used in automobiles to tell airbags when to deploy, in digital projectors to create sharper images, and in inkjet printers to create nozzles for high definition printing. In the future it is hoped the devices will help build tiny implantable medical devices and improve optical communication.
Biomedical engineering is another related discipline, concerned with the design of medical equipment. This includes fixed equipment such as ventilators, MRI scanners, and electrocardiograph monitors as well as mobile equipment such as cochlear implants, artificial pacemakers, and artificial hearts.
Aerospace engineering and robotics an example is the most recent electric propulsion and ion propulsion.
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