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The first commercial electric power transmission (developed by Thomas Edison in the late nineteenth century) used direct current. Because of the advantage of alternating current over direct current in transforming and transmission, electric power distribution today is nearly all alternating current. For applications requiring direct current, such as third rail power systems, alternating current is distributed to a substation, which utilizes a rectifier to convert the power to direct current. See War of Currents.
Direct current is used to charge batteries, and in nearly all electronic systems as the power supply. Very large quantities of direct-current power are used in production of aluminum and other electrochemical processes. Direct current is used for some railway propulsion, especially in urban areas. High voltage direct current is used to transmit large amounts of power from remote generation sites or to interconnect alternating current power grids.
Within electrical engineering, the term DC is a synonym for "constant". For example, the voltage across a DC voltage source is constant as is the current through a DC current source. The DC solution of an electric circuit is the solution where all voltages and currents are constant. It can be shown that any voltage or current waveform can be decomposed into a sum of a DC component and a time-varying component. The DC component is defined to be the average value of the voltage or current over all time. The average value of the time-varying component is zero.
Although DC stands for "Direct Current", DC sometimes refers to "constant polarity." With this definition, DC voltages can vary in time, such as the raw output of a rectifier or the fluctuating voice signal on a telephone line.
Direct-current installations usually have different types of sockets, switches, and fixtures, mostly due to the low voltages used, from those suitable for alternating current. It is usually important with a direct-current appliance not to reverse polarity unless the device has a diode bridge to correct for this (most battery-powered devices do not).DC is commonly found in many low-voltage applications, especially where these are powered by batteries, which can produce only DC, or solar power systems, since solar cells can produce only DC. Most automotive applications use DC, although the alternator is an AC device which uses a rectifier to produce DC. Most electronic circuits require a DC power supply. Applications using fuel cells (mixing hydrogen and oxygen together with a catalyst to produce electricity and water as byproducts) also produce only DC.
Many telephones connect to a twisted pair of wires, and internally separate the AC component of the voltage between the two wires (the audio signal) from the DC component of the voltage between the two wires (used to power the phone).
Telephone exchange communication equipment, such as DSLAM, uses standard -48V DC power supply. The negative polarity is achieved by grounding the positive terminal of power supply system and the battery bank. This is done to prevent electrolysis depositions.
An electrified third rail can be used to power both underground (subway) and overground trains.