Thursday, August 8, 2013

Zero-burden ammeter improves battery run-down and charge management testing of battery-powered devices

One way of assessing run-time of battery-powered devices is to power them up with a regulated DC source, place the device into its appropriate operating modes, and get the corresponding current drawn by the device for each of the various operating modes. Estimations of battery run-time can then be made for different user types, based on the percentage of time spent in each of these operating modes, and the capacity of the battery in mA-hours. The DC source must be able to maintain a stable, transient free voltage at the DUT. A lot of general purpose power supplies have difficulty with mobile wireless devices that draw fast rising, high peak currents. Providing the regulated DC source meets maintains a stable voltage, it offers some advantages, including:
  • Maintains a fixed voltage level over time, removing variability due to changing voltage.
  • Using built-in current read-back eliminates voltage drop issues encountered with using a resistive shunt. This is problematic with mobile wireless devices that draw high peak, but low average current.


An alternative to using a regulated DC source to power the battery powered device is instead use the actual battery. Just like with using a DC source, one can make representative current drain measurements over shorter periods for all the various operating modes and then make predictions on run-time. Alternately one can also perform actual battery run-down tests which, when performed correctly, yields quite a few more insights beyond representative current drain measurements, such as:
  • Low battery discharge termination details.
  • Battery capacity and energy actually delivered.
  • Actual run time achieved.
  • How well the battery and device work together as a system


An actual battery-run down test is an indispensable part of validation as a final proof of performance.

Just as with evaluating battery run-down, it is also just as important to evaluate battery charging and management. Again, a lot of testing can be done on a device independent of its battery, but there is also a lot of additional value in validating a device’s charge management performance with its actual battery.

When validating a device’s discharging and charging performance with an actual battery, the first test challenge is the current drawn from or sourced to the battery needs to be accurately measured and logged over time, together with the battery’s voltage, for making good capacity and energy measurements. The second test challenge here is you cannot afford to introduce any significant drop in voltage between the device and its battery, as this alters charging and discharging performance of the battery powered device. This can be a real problem when trying to use shunt resistors.

An alternative is to use a zero-burden ammeter. You may ask how an ammeter can be zero-burden. It has to have some resistance in order to produce a measurable value, right? Well, not always. Agilent provides an innovative alternative use of the N6781A 2-quadrant source measure module that enables it to operate as a zero-burden ammeter (in addition to being a DC source). Using the N6781A as a zero-burden ammeter to evaluate battery run-down and battery charging of a battery-powered device is depicted in Figure 1.



Figure 1: N6781A zero-burden ammeter / wattmeter operation

The N6781A is able to operate as a zero-burden ammeter because it is able to actively regulate its output at zero volts independent of the current flowing through it. Because its output is zero volts, when placed in series between the device and its battery, there is no voltage drop. At the same time its precision current measurement system is able to now measure the discharge or charge currents. In addition a separate voltage measurement port allows it to measure the battery voltage, so now you are able to capture the battery’s discharge or charge voltage profile, as well as determine charge in amp-hours and energy in watt-hours, as shown in Figure 2.



Figure 2: Capturing, displaying, and evaluating battery run-down results with 14585A software

A useful reference providing further details on evaluating a device’s battery run-down and charging, and how to configure and use the N6781A as a zero-burden ammeter are available in our application note; “Evaluating Battery Run-Down with the N6781A 2-Quadrant Source Measure Unit and the 14585A Control and Analysis Software” (click here to access).

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