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Reduce errors in grounded-load current source

30 Apr 2013  | David Guo

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Operational amplifiers are often employed to make high-quality current sources in a variety of applications, such as industrial process control, scientific instrumentation, and medical equipment. Single Amplifier Current Sources, published in Analog Dialogue, Volume 1, Number 1, 1967, introduces several current source circuits that provide a constant current through floating loads or grounded loads. In industrial applications, such as pressure transmitters and gas detectors, these circuits are widely used to provide 4 mA to 20 mA or 0 mA to 20 mA currents.

The improved Howland current source, shown here, is very popular because it can drive a grounded load. The transistor, which allows relatively high currents, can be replaced by a MOSFET to achieve even higher currents. For low cost, low current applications, the transistor can be eliminated, as shown in Difference Amplifier Forms Heart of Precision Current Source, published in Analog Dialogue, Volume 43, Number 3, 2009.

The accuracy of this current source is determined by the amplifier and the resistors. This article shows how to choose the external resistors to minimise errors.

Figure: An improved Howland current source drives grounded loads.

Analysis of the improved Howland current source yields the transfer function:

Tip 1: Set R2 + R5 = R4
In equation 1, the load resistance influences the output current, but if we set R1 = R3 and R2 + R5 = R4, the formula reduces to:

Here, the output current is only a function of R3, R4, and R5. With an ideal amplifier, the resistor tolerances determine the accuracy of output current.

Tip 2: Set RL = n × R5
To decrease the total number of resistors in the component library, set R1 = R2 = R3 = R4. Now, equation 1 simplifies to:

If R5 = RL, it further simplifies to:

Here, the output current only depends on the resistance of R5.

In some cases, the input signal may need to be attenuated. For example, with a 10-V input signal and R5 = 100 Ω, the output current would be 100 mA. To get a 20 mA output, set R1 = R3 = 5R2 = 5R4. Now, equation 1 reduces to:

If RL = 5R5 = 500 Ω, then:

When designing an improved Howland current source, choose external resistors to make the output current independent of the load resistance. Resistor tolerance influences the accuracy, but a trade-off between accuracy and cost must be made. The amplifier's offset voltage and offset current will also affect the accuracy. Consult the data sheet to check if the amplifier can meet the circuit requirements. An integrated difference amplifier—with its low offset voltage, offset voltage drift, gain error, and gain drift—can implement accurate, stable current sources.

1. Bill Miller, Single Amplifier Current Sources, Analog Dialogue, Volume 1, Number 1, 1967

2. James M. Loe, Grounded-load current source uses one operational amplifier, Analog Dialogue, Volume 1, Number 3, 1967

3. Reza Moghimi, Ways to Optimize the Performance of a Difference Amplifier, AN-589

4. Zhao, Neil, Reem Malik, and Wenshuai Liao, Difference Amplifier Forms Heart of Precision Current Source, Analog Dialogue, Volume 43, Number 3, 2009

5. David Guo, Low-Power, Unity-Gain Difference Amplifier Implements Low-cost Current Source, Analog Dialogue, Volume 45, Number 2, 2011

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