How to choose between brushed and brushless DC motors

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Amir Janjua, an engineer with maxon motor UK, explains how to choose between brushed and brushless technologies when specifying DC motors.

How to choose between brushed and brushless DC motorsWhen choosing a DC motor system for your specific application, several aspects have to be considered prior to deciding on a brushed or brushless DC motor, such as:

  • Required output speed/torque
  • Available power supply
  • Service life
  • External conditions (eg temperature, humidity and dimensional capacity

Once these factors have been considered, the answer will be clear as to whether a brushed DC motor or brushless DC motor is most suitable. The internal construction differs between the two and each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Brushed motors from maxon come with two options, one with graphite brushes (often referred to as carbon brushes) and one with precious metal brushes. The play a crucial role in the commutation system, as they make contact with the commutator bars when the rotor rotates, which enables the motor to achieve continuous motion and maintain the required torque.

Brushless motors have three phases, meaning they cannot be operated directly with a DC power supply or battery. The voltage has to be supplied in pulses to each phase, creating a sequence that enables the motor to rotate in a constant manner. In order to achieve this, the positioning of the rotor is required, which is usually provided by an integrated Hall sensors. The PCB at the back of the motor has three Hall sensors mounted to it, each placed at an equal distance of 120deg, and they detect the magnetic poles of the control magnet, thereby enabling the motor to be operated.

There are several reasons to opt for a brushless design as opposed to a brushed design, one of the main ones being the service life. As the brushes in a brushed motor makes contact with the commutator during operation, it eventually leads to wear of the brushes that essentially reduces performance and service life. When considering the brushless design, the main factor limiting service life is the bearings that support the shaft. Brushed motors on average achieve a service life of 1000-3000 hours, whereas brushless motors should be able to achieve 20,000 hours, providing they are operated within their specification.

The output speed is also a key factor when choosing a brushed or brushless motor. Brushed motors can achieve up to approximately 18,000rpm (depending on brushes and bearings used); however, brushless motors can achieve a continuous output speed of 120,000rpm (ECX range). The speed is also a result of the commutation system used.

External conditions also play a huge part in determining which type of motor to select. If, for example, the motor is to be operated in a vacuum, a modified brushless motor would be the first choice, or a brushed motor with precious metal brushes. With graphite brushes, oxygen and a certain level of humidity are required to form a sufficient patina layer on the commutator surface. This layer is crucial for creating an electrical contact as well as a low level of friction. In a vacuum application no patina layer will form. As for precious metal brushes, the brush lubricant would not be present, as it would be removed as a modification (otherwise it would eventually evaporate in a vacuum application); this results in a limited service life.

Other advantages of using brushless motors are that there is no commutator arcing, and there is no brush fire that would contribute to a reduction in service life.

Control requirements

Using a brushless motor does come with disadvantages, the main one being that a controller is required in order to supply a voltage sequence between the three phases. Adding a controller to the system results in an increase in cost and, from an engineering point of view, results in more dimensional space being required to account for the controller as well as the relevant cables. The EC Flat range offers some versions with integrated 1Q speed controllers, which enable basic control of output speed within a compact solution.

With the key comparisons in mind, the choice between a brushed or brushless motor should be fairly clear, based on the specific application. Both options come with great advantages and can be used in various applications, offering a high level of performance, while also providing a high service life.

Follow the link for more information about brushed and brushless DC motors from maxon motor.

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