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Analog Dialogue Current Issue

Ask The Applications Engineer -6

by James Bryant

Q. Why are there so many different types of operational amplifier?

A. Because there are so many parameters that are important in different applications, and because it is impossible to optimize all of them at once. Op amps may be selected for speed, for noise (voltage, current or both), for input offset voltage and drift, for bias current and its drift, and for common-mode range. Other factors might include power: output, dissipation, or supply, ambient temperature ranges, and packaging. Different circuit architectures and manufacturing processes optimize different performance parameters.

Q. Is there any common factor in the design of op-amps?

A. Yes-most classical (voltage input) op-amps are three-stage devices, consisting of an input stage with differential input and differential output-with good common-mode rejection-followed by a differential-input, single-ended output stage having high voltage-gain and (generally) a single-pole frequency response; and, finally, an output stage, which usually has unity voltage gain.

Q. So where are the differences?

A. There are many possible variations on this basic design. One of the most fundamental is the structure of the input stage. This stage is almost always a long-tailed pair-that is to say, a pair of amplifying devices connected as in the figure-but the choice of devices has a profound effect on the input parameters of the op amp. The figure was drawn with thermionic tubes to avoid any suggestion of partiality in favour of any particular semiconductor device. Since thermionic devices at present are not generally available in IC chip form, a monolithic op-amp will have an input stage built with bipolar or field-effect transistors.

A long-tailed pair built with bipolar transistors is shown in the next figure. Its strong features are its low noise and, with suitable trimming, low voltage offset. Furthermore, if such a stage is trimmed for minimum offset voltage it will inherently have minimum offset drift. Its main disadvantage stems from the proportionality of the emitter and base currents of the transistors; if the emitter current is large enough for the stage to have a reasonable bandwidth, the base current-and hence the bias current-will be relatively large (50 to 1,000 nA in general-purpose op-amps, as much as 10 µA in high-speed ones).

The bias currents in the inverting and non-inverting inputs are unipolar and well matched (their difference is called offset current), and they decrease in a minor way with increasing temperature. In many applications, the accurate matching may be used to compensate for their high absolute value. This figure shows a bias compensation circuit where the bias current in the non-inverting input flows in Rc (known as the bias compensation resistor); this compensates for the voltage drop as the bias current in the inverting input flows through R2. Rc is made nominally equal to the parallel combination of R1 and R2.-it can be trimmed to minimize error due to non-zero offset current).

Such bias compensation is only useful when the bias currents are well-matched. If they are not well-matched, a bias compensation resistor may actually introduce error.

If a bipolar input stage is required without the drawback of such a high bias current, a different form of bias compensation may be used by the chip designer (next figure). The same long-tailed pair is used, but the major portion of the current required by each base is supplied by a current generator on the chip. This can reduce the external bias current to 10 nA or less without affecting the offset, temperature drift, bandwidth or voltage noise. Bias current variation with temperature is quite low.

There are two disadvantages to such an architecture: the current noise is increased and the external bias currents are not well matched (indeed, they may actually flow in opposite directions, or change polarity as chip temperature changes). For many applications these features are no drawback; indeed, one of the most popular low-offset op-amp architectures, the OP-07, uses just such an architecture, as do the OP-27, OP-37 and the AD707, which has a guaranteed offset voltage of only 15 µV. Bias-compensated amplifiers of this type are often recognizable when their data sheets explicitly specify bipolar bias current, for example, ±4.0 nA.

Where bias currents of even a few nanoamps are intolerable, bipolar transistors are usually replaced by field-effect devices. In the past, MOSFETs have been somewhat noisy for op-amp input stages, although modern processing techniques are overcoming this drawback. Since MOSFETS also tend to have relatively high offset voltages, junction FETs (JFETs) are used for high-performance low-bias-current op amps. A typical JFET op-amp input stage is shown in this figure.

The bias current of a JFET bears no relationship to the current flowing in the device, so even a wideband JFET amplifier may have a very low bias current-values of a few tens of picoamperes are commonplace, and the AD549 has a guaranteed bias current of less than 60 fA (one electron per three microseconds!) at room temperature.

The qualification “at room temperature” is critical-the bias current of a JFET is the reverse leakage current of its gate diode, and the reverse leakage current of silicon diodes approximately doubles with every 10°C temperature rise. The bias current of a JFET op-amp is thus not stable with temperature. Indeed, between 25°C and 125°C, the bias current of a JFET op-amp increases by a factor of over 1,000. (The same law applies to MOSFET amplifiers, because the bias current of most MOSFET amplifiers is the leakage current of their gate-protection diodes.)

The offset voltage of a JFET amplifier may be trimmed during manufacture, but minimum offset does not necessarily correspond to minimum temperature drift. It has therefore been necessary to trim offset and drift separately in JFET op-amps, which results in somewhat larger values of voltage offset and drift than are available from the best bipolar amplifiers (values of 250 µV and 5 µV/°C are typical of the best JFET op-amps). Recent studies at Analog Devices, however, have resulted in a patented trimming method which is expected to yield much better values in the next generation of JFET op-amps.

We thus see that there are trade-offs between offset voltage, offset drift, bias current, bias current temperature variation, and noise in operational amplifiers-and that different architectures optimize different features. The table compares the features of the three commonest op-amp architectures. We should note one more category, typified by the new AD705, using bipolar superbeta input transistors; it combines low offset voltage and drift with low bias current and drift.


Q. What other features of op amps should the user know about?

A. A common problem encountered with JFET op-amps is phase inversion. If the input common-mode voltage of a JFET op-amp approaches the negative supply too closely, the inverting and non-inverting input terminals reverse functions. Negative feedback becomes positive feedback and the circuit may latch up. This latchup is unlikely to be destructive, but power may have to be switched off to correct it. This figure shows the effect of such phase inversion in a circuit where latch-up does not occur. The problem may be avoided by using bipolar amplifiers, or by restricting the common-mode range of the signal in some way.

A more serious form of latchup can occur in both bipolar and JFET op-amps if the input signal becomes more positive or negative than the respective op-amp power supplies. If the input terminals go more positive than +Vs + 0.7 V or more negative than -Vs - 0.7 V, current may flow in diodes which are normally biased off. This in turn may turn on thyristors (SCRs) formed by some of the diffusions in the op- amp, short-circuiting the power supplies and destroying the device.

To avoid such destructive latch-up it is important to prevent the input terminals of op-amps from ever exceeding the power supplies. This can have important implications during device turn-on: if a signal is applied to an op-amp before it is powered it may be destroyed at once when power is applied. Whenever there is a risk, either of signals exceeding the voltages on the supplies, or of signals being present prior to power-up of the op-amp, the terminals at risk should be clamped with diodes (preferably fast low-forward-voltage Schottky diodes) to prevent latchup from occurring. Current-limiting resistors may also be needed to prevent the diode current from becoming excessive (see the figure).

This protection circuitry can cause problems of its own. Leakage current in the diode(s) may affect the error budget of the circuit (and if glass-encapsulated diodes are used, their leakage current may be modulated at 100 or 120 Hz due to photoelectric effects if exposed to fluorescent ambient lighting, thus contributing hum as well as dc leakage current); Johnson noise in the current-limiting resistor may worsen the circuit’s noise performance; and bias current flowing in the resistor may produce an apparent increase in offset voltage. All these effects must be considered when designing such protection.

The important subjects of noise, interference, bypassing, and grounding demand discussion-but we’re out of space! We’ll come back to them again in future chats; meanwhile you may want to take a look at some of the references in the footnotes on pages 193-4 of The Best of Analog Dialogue, 1967-1991.