Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How do I measure inrush current with an Agilent DC Power Supply?

Hello everybody! I want to build on my blog post from last month.  This month, we are going to discuss how to measure inrush current using the DC Power Analyzer’s scope function as well as the digitizer feature that is available on some of our system power supplies.

Measuring inrush current is a task that many customers that use DC Power Supplies want to accomplish.  When you are doing this test on the bench, the N6705B DC Power Analyzer (DCPA) is your best bet.  The DCPA has the scope feature which makes this a breeze.  One of the great things about Agilent power supplies is that they can measure current directly, without the need for a current probe. Some of our supplies have very high current measurement accuracy as well so you can get an accurate representation of your current.

In the below screenshot, I just had a capacitor connected to the output of the supply.  I set a voltage arbitrary waveform that went from 0 V to 20 V with the voltage slew set for the maximum.  I set the scope to trigger on the Arb run/stop key so that when I hit the key, both the arbitrary waveform and the scope triggered.  After I acquired the waveform, I used the markers to get the maximum current.  That number is our inrush current.   

As I said earlier, DCPA is geared towards bench use.   The graphical scope makes this task pretty easy.  Many of our system supplies (as well as the DCPA) have a digitizer feature that you can access using the SCPI programming interface.  The digitizer will sample the output using settings that you provide it.  These settings are: the number of points, the time interval between points, and the number of pretrigger points that you acquire.  In the N678xA SMU modules, the time interval is as low as 5.12 us and the number of points is as high as 512kpoints.  Here is a list of commands to set up the digitizer (written for the N67xx supplies) as well as some comments.

Set the digitizer to measure current:

Set the number of pretrigger points, a negative value represents points taken before the trigger:

Set the total number of points to acquire:
SENS:SWE:POIN 5000,(@1)

Set the time interval between points:
SENS:SWE:TINT 0.000020,(@1)

Set the measurement trigger source to bus:

 Initiate the measurement trigger system

Send a trigger:

Using this code, once the trigger is sent, the measurement system will acquire 5000 points at a time interval of 20 us while taking 100 pretrigger points. 

After the measurement occurs, you read the current back using:

Once you have the array of current measurements, you can do any normal calculation that you can do on any array.  To measure inrush, you want to find the maximum current in the array.  This peak will be your inrush current.  I wrote a program that followed the exact same steps that I used on the scope above (setting up a step that went from 0 to 20 V and synchronizing triggers) and measured a maximum of 1.07748 A.  As you can see, I got a similar result from the two different approaches.

That is all that I have this month.  I hope that it is useful information.  If you have any questions at all please feel free to ask them in our comments.

Friday, April 26, 2013

How to read your DC power supply’s data sheet

When you have to select a programmable DC power supply to power your device under test (DUT), you will have many power supply vendors to choose from. To narrow your selection, you will likely read the data sheets associated with the power supplies you are interested in. While some of the basic information about the power supplies presented on the data sheets will be similar, you will also find different specification descriptions from different power supply vendors. To ensure you are considering the right specs, it is best to start with a good understanding of your DUT’s power requirements. Start with your DUT’s required maximum input voltage, current, and power. Think about whether or not you need to supply dynamic input voltages to your DUT and about how accurate the DUT input voltage needs to be.  Then consider what power-related measurements you will need to make.

Once you know your DUT’s power requirements, you can begin to peruse the specs in various power supply data sheets to find one that meets your needs. Most likely, you will be considering specs such as:
  • DC output ratings
    • These show the maximum voltage, current, and power available from the power supply. Make sure your DC input requirements are within these values. 
  • Output noise
    • This specification describes the deviations in the DC output voltage, typically expressed as peak-to-peak volts and rms volts. If your DUT is sensitive to noise, be sure to choose a low noise power supply.
  • Load regulation (also called load effect)
    • This spec shows how much the steady-state output voltage can change when the load current changes. If you want the input voltage to your DUT to vary very little when your DUT current changes, choose a power supply with low load regulation.
  • Load transient recovery time
    • This is the time for the output voltage to recover to within a settling band around the steady-state value when the load current changes. If your DUT is sensitive to large short-term input voltage changes, choose a power supply with a short load transient recovery time.
  • Line regulation (also called line effect, source regulation, or source effect)
    • This spec shows how much the steady-state output voltage can change when the power supply’s AC input line voltage changes. If you want the input voltage to your DUT to vary very little when your AC line voltage changes, choose a power supply with low line regulation.
  • Programming accuracy
    • This spec shows how much the steady-state output voltage can vary from its programmed (set) value. If you want the input voltage to your DUT to be very precisely controlled, choose a power supply with a low programming accuracy. (Most “programming accuracy” specs are really describing the maximum possible “programming error”, so you want this number to be low.)
  • Measurement accuracy
    • This spec shows how much the steady-state measurements (voltage or current) can vary from the actual output value. If you are counting on measuring your DUT’s input voltage or current with high accuracy, choose a power supply with low measurement accuracy. (Most “measurement accuracy” specs are really describing the maximum possible “measurement error”, so you want this number to be low.)
One of my colleagues, Kevin Cavell, wrote an article entitled “How to Read Your DC Power Supply’s Data Sheet” that appeared in the March, 2013 issue of Design World addressing in more detail many of these considerations. Here is a link to the on-line version:

The same article can be accessed here:

Finally, here is a link to Kevin’s application note – the article was based on this app note:

Kevin’s app note uses examples from the data sheets for a Sorenson power supply and an Agilent power supply. You will notice that the magazine articles refer to these as Power Supply A and Power Supply B.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Ferroresonant Transformers as Pre-regulators in DC Power Supplies

One significant drawback of a linear DC power supply is its efficiency for most applications. You can generally design a linear DC power supply with reasonable efficiency when both the output and input voltage values are fixed. However, when either or both of these vary over a wide range, after assuring the DC power supply will properly regulate at low input voltage and/or high output voltage, it then has to dissipate considerable power the other extremes.

For DC power supplies running off an AC line, having to accommodate a fairly wide range of AC input voltage is a given. A 35% increase in line voltage from the minimum to the maximum value is not uncommon. Today’s high frequency switching based power supplies have resolved the issue of efficiency as a function of input line voltage variance. However, prior to widespread adaptation of high frequency switching DC power supplies, variety of different types of low-frequency pre-regulators were developed for linear DC power supplies

What is a pre-regulator? A pre-regulator is a circuit that provides a regulated voltage to the linear output stage from an unregulated voltage derived from the AC line voltage, with little loss of power. Although not nearly as commonly used as other pre-regulator schemes, on rare occasion ferroresonant transformers were used as an effective and efficient pre-regulator in DC power supplies.

What is a ferroresonant transformer? It is similar to a regular transformer in that it transforms AC voltage through primary and secondary windings. Unlike a regular transformer however, once it reaches a certain AC input voltage level it starts regulating its AC output voltage at a fixed level even as the AC input voltage continues to rise, as depicted in Figure 1. Ferroresonant transformers are also commonly called constant voltage transformers, or CVTs.

Figure 1: Ferroresonant transformer input-output transfer characteristic

The ferroresonant transformer employs a rather unique magnetic structure that places a magnetic shunt leakage path between the primary and secondary windings. This structure is illustrated in Figure 2. This way only part of the transformer structure saturates at a higher fixed peak voltage level during each AC half cycle. When part of the core magnetically saturates, the primary and secondary windings are effectively decoupled. The AC capacitor on the secondary side resonates with existing inductance. This provides the carry-over energy to the load during this magnetically saturated phase, holding up the voltage level. The resulting waveform is a clipped sine wave with a fairly high level of harmonic distortion as a result. Some more modern designs include additional filtering that can bring the harmonic distortion down to just a few percent however.

Figure 2: Ferroresonant transformer structure

A ferroresonant transformer has some very appealing characteristics in addition to output voltage regulation:
  • Provides isolation from line spikes and noise that is normally coupled through on conventional transformers
  • Provides protection from AC line voltage surges
  • Provides carry over during momentary AC line drop outs that are of a fraction of a line cycle
  • Limits its output current if short-circuited
  • Extremely robust and reliable

Because of a number of other tradeoffs it is unlikely that you will find them in a DC power supply today. High frequency switching designs pretty much totally dominate in performance and cost. Ferroresonant transformer design tradeoffs include:
  • Large physical size
  • Relatively expensive and specialized
  • Limited to a specific line frequency as it resonates at that frequency

So, even though you are very unlikely to encounter a ferroresonant transformer in a DC power supply today, it’s interesting to see there still appears to be a healthy demand for ferroresonant transformers as AC line conditioners in a wide range of sizes, up to AC line power utility sizes.  Their inherent simplicity and robustness is hard to beat when long term, maintenance-free, reliable service is paramount, and AC line regulation in many regions around the world cannot be counted on to be well controlled.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Why would a DC power supply have RMS current readback?

During a conversation with a colleague at work one day the topic of having RMS current readback on DC power supplies came up. It is a measurement capability we have on a number of our system DC power supplies. He posed the question: Why the reason for having such a capability? I actually had not been involved with the original investigations identifying what reasons this was added so I instead had to rely on my intuition. That’s not always a good thing but it did help me out this time at least!

He had argued that since you are feeding a fixed DC voltage into the device you are powering, the power consumption is going to be a product of the DC (average) voltage and DC (average) current, regardless of whether the current is purely DC, or if it is dynamic, having a substantial amount of AC content. This is true, as I have illustrated in figure 1, comparing purely DC and pulsed currents being drawn by a load. For purely DC current the DC and RMS values are the same. In comparison, for a pulsed current the RMS value is greater the DC value. Regardless, the RMS current value does not factor into the overall power consumption of the DUT here. The power consumption is still the product of the DC voltage and current.

Figure 1: Comparing power consumption of a DC powered DUT drawing constant and pulsed currents

So why provide an RMS current measurement? Well there can be times when this can prove useful, even when the DUT is powered by a fixed DC voltage. Consider the scenario depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Properly sizing a protection fuse on a DC powered device

Many products incorporate fuses to protect from over-current and subsequent damage, usually brought on due to misuse or component failure. Fuses are rated by their RMS current handling, not the DC current. In the case of the pulsed loading the RMS current is twice the DC current and the resulting power in the fuse is four times that for a constant current.  If the fuse was selected based on the DC current value it would most certainly fail well below the required operating level!

My colleague conceded that this fuse example was a legitimate case where RMS current measurement would indeed be useful. Maybe it was not a frivolous capability after all. No doubt sizing fuses is just one of many reasons why RMS measurement on DC products can be useful!