Friday, January 18, 2013

Types of current limits for over-current protection on DC power supplies

On a previous posting “The difference between constant current and current limit in DC power supplies”, I discussed what differentiates a DC power supply having a constant current operation in comparison to having strictly a current limit for over-current protection. In that post I had depicted one very conventional current limit behavior. However there is actually quite a variety of current limits incorporated in different DC power supplies, depending on the intended end-use of the power supply.

Fold-back Current Limit
The output characteristic of a constant voltage (CV) power supply utilizing fold-back current limiting is depicted in Figure 1. Fold-back current limiting is sometimes used to provide a higher level of protection for DUTs where excess current and power dissipation can cause damage to a DUT that has gone into an overload condition. This is accomplished by reducing both the current and voltage as the DUT goes further into overload. The short circuit current will typically be 20% to 50% of the maximum current level. A reasonable margin between the crossover current point and required maximum rated DUT current needs to be established in order to prevent false over-current tripping conditions. Due to the fold-back nature, and depending on the loading nature of the DUT, the operating point could drop down towards the short-circuit operating point once the crossover point is reached/exceeded. This would require powering the DUT down and up again in order to get back to the CV operating region.

Figure 1: Output characteristic of a CV power supply with fold-back current limiting

In addition to providing over-current protection for the DUT, fold-back current limiting is often employed in fixed output linear DC power supplies as a means for reducing worst case dissipation in the power supply itself. Under short circuit conditions the voltage normally appearing across the DUT instead appears across the power supply’s internal series linear regulator, requiring it to dissipate considerably more power than it has to under normal operating conditions. By employing fold-back current limiting the power dissipation on the series-linear regulator is greatly reduced under overload conditions, reducing the size and cost of the series-linear regulator for a given output power rating of the DC linear power supply.

Fold-forward Current Limit
A variety of loading devices, such as electric motors, DC-DC converters, and large capacitive loads can draw large peak currents at startup. Because of this they can often be better suited for being powered by a DC power supply that has a fold-forward current limit characteristic, as depicted in Figure 2. With fold-forward current limiting after exceeding the crossover current limit the current level instead continues to increase while the voltage drops while the loading increases.

Figure 2: Output characteristic of a CV power supply with fold-forward current limiting

As one example of where fold-forward current limiting is a benefit, it can help a motor start under load which otherwise would not start under other current-limits. Indeed, with fold-back current limiting, a motor may not and then it would remain stalled, due to the reduced current.

Special Purpose Current Limits
Unlike the previous current limit schemes which are widely standard practice, there is a number of other current limit circuits used, often tailored for more application-specific purposes. One example of this is the current limiting employed in our 66300 series DC sources for powering mobile phones and other battery powered mobile wireless devices. Its output characteristic is depicted in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Agilent 66300 Series DC source output characteristics

We refer to this power supply series as battery emulator DC sources. One reason why is they are 2-quadrant DC sources.  Like a rechargeable battery, they need to be able to source current when powering the mobile device and then sink current when the mobile device is in its charging mode.  In Figure 3 there are actually two separate current limits; one for sourcing current and another for sinking current. Each has different and distinctive characteristics for specific purposes.

Many battery powered mobile wireless devices draw power and current in short, high peak bursts, especially when transmitting. To better accommodate these short, high peaks, the 66300 series DC sources have a time-limited peak current limit that is of sufficient duration to support these high peaks. They also have a programmable constant current level that will over-ride the peak current limit when the average current value of the pulsed current drain reaches this programmed level. With this approach a higher peak power mobile device can be powered from a smaller DC power source.

Just like an electronic load, when the 66300 series DC source is sinking current the limiting factor is how much power it is able to dissipate. Instead of using a fixed current limit, it uses a fold-forward characteristic current limit (although folding forward in the negative direction!). This is not done for reasons that a fold-forward current limit that was just discussed is used; it is done so higher charging currents at lower voltage levels can be accommodated, taking advantage of the available power that can be dissipated. Again, this provides the user with greater capability in comparison to using a fixed-value limit.

Other types of current limits exist for other specific reasons so it is helpful to be aware that not all current limits are the same when selecting a DC power supply for a particular application!

Reference: Agilent Technologies DC Power Supply Handbook, application note AN-90B, part number 5952-4020 “Click here to access”

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