Maximum Power Transfer Theorem

The Maximum Power Transfer Theorem is not so much a means of analysis as it is an aid to system design. Simply stated, the maximum amount of power will be dissipated by a load resistance when that load resistance is equal to the Thevenin/Norton resistance of the network supplying the power. If the load resistance is lower or higher than the Thevenin/Norton resistance of the source network, its dissipated power will be less than maximum.

This is essentially what is aimed for in stereo system design, where speaker “impedance” is matched to amplifier “impedance” for maximum sound power output. Impedance, the overall opposition to AC and DC current, is very similar to resistance, and must be equal between source and load for the greatest amount of power to be transferred to the load. A load impedance that is too high will result in low power output. A load impedance that is too low will not only result in low power output, but possibly overheating of the amplifier due to the power dissipated in its internal (Thevenin or Norton) impedance.

Taking our Thevenin equivalent example circuit, the Maximum Power Transfer Theorem tells us that the load resistance resulting in greatest power dissipation is equal in value to the Thevenin resistance (in this case, 0.8 Ω):

With this value of load resistance, the dissipated power will be 39.2 watts:

If we were to try a lower value for the load resistance (0.5 Ω instead of 0.8 Ω, for example), our power dissipated by the load resistance would decrease:

Power dissipation increased for both the Thevenin resistance and the total circuit, but it decreased for the load resistor. Likewise, if we increase the load resistance (1.1 Ω instead of 0.8 Ω, for example), power dissipation will also be less than it was at 0.8 Ω exactly:

If you were designing a circuit for maximum power dissipation at the load resistance, this theorem would be very useful. Having reduced a network down to a Thevenin voltage and resistance (or Norton current and resistance), you simply set the load resistance equal to that Thevenin or Norton equivalent (or vice versa) to ensure maximum power dissipation at the load. Practical applications of this might include stereo amplifier design (seeking to maximize power delivered to speakers) or electric vehicle design (seeking to maximize power delivered to drive motor).