Layout For Precision Op Amps

The incredible offset and drift performance of modern precision op amps can easily be degraded by poor PCB layout techniques. By utilizing a few simple layout techniques, the performance of the IC can be maintained.

Thermocouple Effects

In order to achieve accuracy on the microvolt level, thermocouple effects must be considered. Any connection of dissimilar metals forms a thermoelectric junction and generates a small temperature-dependent voltage. Also known as the Seebeck Effect, these thermal EMFs can be the dominant error source in low-drift circuits.

Connectors, switches, relay contacts, sockets, resistors, and solder are all candidates for significant thermal EMF generation. Even junctions of copper wire from different manufacturers can generate thermal EMFs of 200nV/°C, which is over 13 times the maximum drift specification of the LTC2057. Figures 4 and 5 illustrate the potential magnitude of these voltages and their sensitivity to temperature.

Figure 1. Thermal EMF Generated by Two Copper Wires From Different Manufacturers

In order to minimize thermocouple-induced errors, attention must be given to circuit board layout and component selection. It is good practice to minimize the number of junctions in the amplifier’s input signal path and avoid connectors, sockets, switches, and relays whenever possible. If such components are required, they should be selected for low thermal EMF characteristics. Furthermore, the number, type, and layout of junctions should be matched for both inputs with respect to thermal gradients on the circuit board. Doing so may involve deliberately introducing dummy junctions to offset unavoidable junctions.

Layout For Precision Op Amps

Figure 2. Solder Copper Thermal EMFs

Air currents can also lead to thermal gradients and cause significant noise in measurement systems. It is important to prevent airflow across sensitive circuits. Doing so will often reduce thermocouple noise substantially. A summary of techniques can be found in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Techniques for Minimizing Thermocouple Induced Errors

Leakage Effects

Leakage currents into high impedance signal nodes can easily degrade measurement accuracy of sub-nanoamp signals. High voltage and high temperature applications are especially susceptible to these issues. Quality insulation materials should be used, and insulating surfaces should be cleaned to remove fluxes and other residues. For humid environments, surface coating may be necessary to provide a moisture barrier.

Figure 4.

Board leakage can be minimized by encircling the input connections with a guard ring operated at a potential very close to that of the inputs. The ring must be tied to a low impedance node. For inverting configurations, the guard ring should be tied to the potential of the positive input (+IN). For non-inverting configurations, the guard ring should be tied to the potential of the negative input (–IN). In order for this technique to be effective, the guard ring must not be covered by solder mask. Ringing both sides of the printed circuit board may be required.

Figure 5. Example Layout of Non Inverting Amplifier with Leakage Guard Ring

For low-leakage applications, the LTC2057 is available in an MS10 package with a special pinout that facilitates the layout of guard ring structures. The pins adjacent to the inputs have no internal connection, allowing a guard ring to be routed through them.

Layout For Precision Op Amps
Layout For Precision Op Amps

Figure 6. Example Layout of Inverting Amplifier with Leakage Guard Ring

Authors

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Glen Brisebois

Glen Brisebois is an Applications Engineer with the Signal Conditioning group at Linear Technology in Silicon Valley. He attended the University of Alberta in Canada, achieving Bachelor's degrees in both Physics and Electrical Engineering. He attempted monastic life for several years with both the Trappists and the Carthusians, but couldn't stop thinking about circuits. He is now happily married with several children, and works a lot with circuits, but will sometimes advocate an ADC instead. His article "Signal Conditioning for High Impedance Sensors" at EDN magazine won the Best Article award of 2006.

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Jeremy Wong