Abstract: Understanding the physics of voltage regulator topologies is important in designing power systems for EMI and EMC compliance. In particular, the physical principles behind switching regulators (buck, boost, flyback, and SEPIC topologies) guide component choice, magnetics design and PC board layout. Parasitic elements such as leakage inductance, ESR, and ESL are significant when optimizing circuit performance.
Most portable devices include a regulator or other form of power supply, and the lower supply voltages associated with smaller-lithography ICs have mandated these power circuits in many nonportable devices as well. Though not fully understood by many designers, the trade-off among different types of regulators and power supplies can have a major effect on battery life, compliance with electromagnetic interference/electromagnetic compatibility (EMI/EMC) regulations, and even the basic operation of a product under design. The following overview covers the mechanisms and the physical principles governing the generation and the propagation of electrical noise in power supplies.
The most common power converter is the voltage regulator. It accepts a voltage that varies over a given range, and it generates an output voltage that does not vary. Regulators comprise two main categories: switching types and all others (mainly the linear and shunt types). Unlike switching regulators, linear and shunt types are limited by the fact that their output voltage must remain less than the input voltage. Also, the efficiency of most switching regulators is better than that of an equivalent linear or shunt regulator. Nevertheless, the low noise and the simplicity of linear/shunt types make them an attractive alternative to switching regulators.
The simplest type of voltage regulator is a shunt regulator, which merely adjusts current through a resistor to drop the input voltage to a regulated output level. Zener diodes also function this way, but power dissipation in a zener is high, and its load regulation (change in output voltage with change in load current) is poor. Some shunt regulators let you set the regulation voltage with a voltage divider, but those types usually appear as building blocks in more complex regulators or power supplies. Generally, shunt regulators are appropriate for low-power systems in which the variation of load current is small. This narrow range of application can be expanded, however, by adding an active pass element (usually a bipolar transistor) that transforms the shunt into a linear regulator.
Linear Voltage Regulators
Linear voltage regulators use an active pass element (bipolar or MOSFET) to drop the input voltage down to the regulated output voltage. Among these devices, the low-dropout (LDO) types have become popular over the last decade. Dropout refers to the minimum difference (between input and output voltage) that sustains regulation. Dropout voltages as high as 1V have been called LDO, but a more typical value is between 100mV and 300mV.
Because a linear regulator's input current is approximately equal to its output current, its efficiency (output power divided by input power) is a function of the output/input voltage ratio. Thus, dropout is important, as lower dropout means higher efficiency. However, if the input voltage is much higher than the output voltage, or if it varies widely, then maximum efficiency is difficult to achieve. Another function of LDO regulators (to be discussed) is to serve as a barrier to the noise generated by a switching regulator. In that role, the LDO regulator's low-dropout characteristic improves the circuit's overall efficiency.
If the performance of a linear or shunt regulator is not adequate for the application, then the designer must turn to a switching regulator. Along with improved performance, however, come the drawbacks of larger size and cost, greater sensitivity to (and generation of) electrical noise, and a general increase in complexity.
Noise generated by a switching regulator or power supply can emerge through conduction or radiation. Conducted emissions can take the form of voltage or current, and each of these can be further categorized as common-mode or differential-mode conduction. To complicate matters, the finite impedance of connecting wires enables voltage conduction to cause current conduction and vice versa, and differential-mode conduction to cause common-mode conduction and vice versa.
However, generally you can optimize a circuit to reduce one or more of these emissions. Conducted emission usually poses a greater problem for fixed systems than for portable systems. Because the portable device operates from batteries, its load and source have no external connections for conducting emissions.
To understand the source of noise in a switching regulator, you must first understand its operation. Descriptions of the many types of switching regulators are beyond the scope of this article. But, basically, a switching regulator converts the source voltage/current to load voltage/current by employing active elements (transistors and diodes) to shuttle current through storage elements (inductors and capacitors). To illustrate, the MAX1653 DC/DC converter controller forms a typical synchronous-rectified step-down converter (Figure 1).
Figure 1. This illustrative step-down switching regulator features an externalswitching transistor (N1) and synchronous rectifier (N2).
During normal operation, the circuit conducts current from input to output when the high-side switch (N1) is on, and it continues conducting through the inductor when N1 is off and the synchronous rectifier (N2) is on. First-order approximations of the current and voltage waveforms (Figure 2) lead to a flawed assumption that all the components are ideal, but the parasitic effects of these components will be covered later.
Figure 2. These waveforms from the circuit in Figure 1 are based on an assumption of ideal components.
Because N1 is on only part-time, the input source and input capacitor (CIN) see discontinuous currents. CIN supplies the excess current (IL -IINPUT) while N1 is on, and it stores charge from the input current while N1 is off. If CIN were of infinite value, with zero equivalent series resistance (ESR) and equivalent series inductance (ESL), the voltage across it would remain constant during these partial charge and discharge cycles. Actual voltage fluctuates over each cycle, of course. The current pulses divide between CIN and the input source, based on the relative conductance at or above the converter's switching frequency.
One way to eliminate these conducted emissions is the brute force approach: Connect low-impedance bypass capacitors at the input. Yet a more subtle approach can save cost and board area: Add impedance between the source and the converter, making sure the necessary DC current can pass. The best impedance is an inductor, but take care that the converter's input impedance remains low up to its loop crossover frequency. (The loop crossover for most DC/DC switching converters is between 10kHz and 100kHz.) Otherwise, input-voltage fluctuations can destabilize the output voltage.
Current ripple on the output capacitor (COUT) is much less than on CIN. Its amplitude is lower, and (unlike the input capacitor) its current is continuous, and therefore has less harmonic content. Normally, each turn of the coil is covered with wire insulation, forming a small capacitor between each pair of turns. Adding these parasitic capacitors in series forms a small equivalent capacitor in parallel with the inductor, which provides a path for conduction of current impulses to COUT and the load. Thus, the discontinuous edges of the voltage waveform at the switching node (LX) conduct high-frequency current to COUT and the load. The usual result is spikes on the output voltage, with energy in the 20MHz to 50MHz range.
Often the load for this type of converter is some form of microelectronics susceptible to conducted noise, and fortunately the converter's conducted noise is easier to control at the output than at the input. As for the input, output conducted noise can be controlled by very low impedance bypassing or secondary filtering. One should be cautious of secondary (post) filtering, however. Output voltage is a regulated variable in the control loop, so an output filter adds delay or phase (or both) to the loop gain, possibly destabilizing the circuit. If a high-Q LC post-filter is placed after the feedback point, the inductor's resistance will degrade the load regulation, and transient load currents can cause ringing.
Other switching-converter topologies have problems similar to those of the step-down converter. A step-up converter (Figure 3), for example, has the basic structure of a step-down converter, but with inputs and outputs swapped. Thus, problems at the input of a step-down converter apply to the input of a step-up converter as well, and vice versa.
Figure 3. This step-up switching regulator lacks synchronous rectification, but is otherwise similar to the step-down type, with inputs and outputs swapped.
Step-down converters are limited, because their output voltage must be less than the input voltage. Similarly, a step-up converter's output voltage must be greater than its input voltage. This requirement is problematic when the output voltage falls within the input-voltage range. A topology that solves this problem is the flyback converter (Figure 4).
Figure 4. A flyback regulator maintains regulation for inputs that range above and below the output voltage.
Because currents at the input and the output are both discontinuous, making conducted emissions more difficult to control, noise from this converter is generally worse than that of a step-up or step-down type. Another problem with this converter is that current in each transformer winding is discontinuous, and these discontinuities act with the transformer's leakage inductance to produce high-frequency spikes, which can conduct to other circuits. Physical separation of the primary and secondary windings causes this leakage inductance. Thus, the leakage inductance results from magnetic fields in the air (because fields in the core couple both the primary and secondary windings). Spikes due to the leakage inductance therefore cause magnetic field radiation.
Another topology that solves the problem of overlapping input and output voltages is the single-ended primary inductance converter (SEPIC). Similar to a flyback circuit, the SEPIC converter connects a capacitor between the transformer's primary and secondary windings (Figure 5). This capacitor, which provides a path for current in the primary and secondary windings during the time that flyback currents are off, improves the flyback circuit by making the primary and secondary currents continuous. On the other hand, adding input or output capacitance to a flyback circuit can often improve its emissions sufficiently to make that topology just as acceptable. If conducted and radiated noise is expected to be a problem, however, the SEPIC circuit can be preferable to the flyback.
Figure 5. Otherwise similar to a flyback regulator, the single-ended primary inductance converter (SEPIC) has continuous primary and secondary currents that generate less noise.
For some applications in which output noise must be minimized, the efficiency deficit of using a linear regulator is not acceptable. A switching regulator followed by a linear post-regulator can be suitable in these cases. The post-regulator attenuates high-
frequency noise generated by the switching regulator, resulting in noise performance approaching that of a lone linear regulator. Because most voltage conversion occurs in the switching regulator, however, the efficiency penalty is much smaller than for a lone linear regulator.
This scheme can also replace flyback and SEPIC converters in applications for which the input and output voltages overlap. The step-up converter operates when the input is less than the output, and the linear regulator operates when the input is greater than the output. A step-up converter and a low dropout (LDO) linear regulator can be combined in a single IC (Figure 6). This device also includes a track mode in which the step-up converter output voltage is always 300mV above the LDO output voltage. As a result, the LDO regulator maintains sufficient PSRR and headroom (input minus output voltage) to attenuate noise from the step-up converter under all conditions.
Figure 6. As a third option for maintaining regulation when the input range overlaps the output voltage, this IC combines a switching regulator (for step up) and a linear regulator (for step down).
By definition, common-mode conduction is in phase on both connections of the input or the output. Typically, it poses a problem only for fixed systems that have a path to earth ground. In a typical offline power supply with common-mode filters (Figure 7), the main source of common-mode noise is the MOSFET. The MOSFET is usually a major power-dissipating element in the circuit, and it requires a heatsink.
Figure 7. Common-mode filters in this typical offline power supply reduce noise that is common to both sides of the input and the output.
For a TO-220 device, the heatsink tab would connect to the MOSFET drain, and in most cases the heatsink would conduct current to earth ground. Because the MOSFET is both insulated and electrically isolated from the heatsink, it has some capacitance to earth ground. As it switches on and off, the rapidly changing drain voltage drives current through the parasitic capacitance (CP1) to earth ground. Because the AC line has low impedance to earth ground, these common-mode currents flow from the AC input to earth ground. The transformer, too, conducts high-frequency current through the parasitic capacitance (CP2A and CP2B) between its isolated primary and secondary windings. Thus, noise can be conducted to the output as well as the input.
In Figure 7, the common-mode conducted noise is attenuated by the common-mode low-pass filters between the noise source (the power supply) and the input or the output. Common-mode chokes (CML1 and CML2) are generally wound on a single core with the polarity shown. Load current and the line current driving the power supply are both differential-mode currents (that is, current flowing in one line flows out the other). By winding the common-mode chokes on a single core, the fields due to differential-mode currents cancel, allowing use of a smaller core because very little
energy is stored in it.
Many of the common-mode chokes designed for offline power supplies are wound with physical separation between the windings. This construction adds differential-mode inductance, which also helps to reduce the conducted differential-mode noise. Because the core links both windings, fields due to differential-mode current and inductance are in the air rather than the core, which can produce radiated emissions.
Common-mode noise generated in the power supply's load can be conducted through the power supply to the AC line by means of parasitic capacitance (CP2A and CP2B) in the transformer. A Faraday shield in the transformer (a ground plane between primary and secondary) can reduce this noise (Figure 8). The shield forms capacitors from the primary and secondary to ground, and these capacitors shunt common-mode currents to ground rather than allowing them to pass through the transformer.