Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On DC Source Voltage and Current Levels and (Compliance) Limits Part 2: When levels and limits are not the same

In part 1 my colleague made a good argument for current and voltage level and limit settings actually being one and the same thing and it was really just a case of semantics whether your power supply was operating in constant voltage or in constant current mode. I disagreed and I was not ready to admit defeat on this yet. Now is my chance to explain why I believe they’re not one and the same thing.

I have been doing quite a bit of work with source measure units (SMUs) that support multi quadrant output operation. They in fact feature (constant) voltage sourcing and current sourcing modes of operation. This tailors the operation of the SMU for operating as a voltage source with a set current compliance range or conversely as a current source with a set voltage compliance range. Right at the start one difference is the set up conditions. The output voltage or current level is set to zero while the corresponding current or voltage limit is set to some value, often maximum, so that the DC source accordingly starts out in either constant voltage or constant current for normal operating conditions.

Some products feature a programmable or fixed power limits. In one product I know of, the programmable power limit acts accordingly to override and cut back the either the voltage limit when set for current sourcing, or the current limit when set for voltage sourcing. It does not do this in true real-time however. It cuts back the limit based on the level setting, as a convenient means as to help prevent the user from accidently over-powering the DUT. Alternately many auto-ranging output DC power sources exist that provide an extended range of output and voltage for a given output power capacity. They incorporate a fixed power limit to protect the power supply itself from being inadvertently overloaded, as shown in Figure 1. Usually the idea is for the user to stay below the limit, not operate in power limit. The point here on these examples is that the power parameter is an example of being a limit but not really a level.

Figure 1: Auto-ranging DC power supply power limit

More to the point is some SMUs may incorporate two limits to provide a bounded compliance range with specified positive and negative limits. Not all DUTs are passive, non-reactive devices. As one illustrative example a DUT may be the output of 2-quadrant DC voltage source which you want to force up or down, within limits, or a battery you want to charge and discharge at a fixed rate, with your test system DC source. This set up is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Test system DC source driving the output of a DUT source

Figure 3 shows the constant voltage or voltage priority output characteristic for one particular SMU having two programmable current limits. Clearly both limits cannot also be the current level setting as you can only have one level setting. For the case of the external voltage source load line #1 (not all load lines are resistances!), when SMU voltage is less than the DUT source voltage (VEXT1 load line), the current is –ILIM. Conversely when SMU voltage is greater than the DUT source voltage (VEXT2 load line), the current is then +ILIM. In the case of the battery as a DUT this can be used to charge and discharge the battery to specified voltage levels. This desired behavior is achieved using voltage priority operation. Current priority operation would yield very different results. Understanding the nuances of voltage priority, current priority, levels, and limits is useful for getting more utility from your DC sources for more unusual and challenging power test challenges.

Figure 3: Example of a current priority output characteristic driving a DUT voltage source

In closing I’ll concur with my colleague, in many test situations using most DC sources the voltage and current levels and limits may not have a meaningful difference. However, in many more complex cases, especially when dealing with active DUTs and using more capable DC sources and SMUs, there is a clear need for voltage and current level and limit controls that are clearly differentiated and not one and the same! What do you believe?

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