LDO basics: noise – part 1

In another LDO basics blog post, I discussed using a low-dropout regulator (LDO) to filter ripple voltage arising from switched-mode power supplies. This isn’t the only consideration for achieving a clean DC power supply, however. Because LDOs are electronic devices, they generate a certain amount of noise of their own accord. Selecting a low-noise LDO and taking steps to reduce internal noise are integral to generating clean supply rails that won’t compromise system performance.

Identifying noise

The ideal LDO would generate a voltage rail with no AC elements. Unfortunately, LDOs generate their own noise like other electronic devices. Figure 1 shows how this noise manifests in the time domain.

Figure 1: Scope shot of a noisy power supply

Analysis in the time domain is difficult. Therefore, there are two main ways to examine noise: across frequency and as an integrated value.

You can use a spectrum analyzer to identify the various AC elements at the output of the LDO. (The application report, “How to measure LDO noise,” covers noise measurements extensively.) Figure 2 plots output noise for a 1A low-noise LDO, the TPS7A91.

Figure 2: Noise spectral density of the TPS7A91 vs. frequency and VOUT

As you can see from the various curves, output noise (represented in microvolts per square root hertz [μV/ Hz]), is concentrated at the lower end of the frequency spectrum. This noise mostly emanates from the internal reference voltage but also has contributions from the error amplifier, FET and resistor divider.

Looking at output noise across frequency is helpful in determining the noise profile for a frequency range of interest. For example, audio application designers care about audible frequencies (20Hz to 20kHz) where power-supply noise might degrade sound quality.

Data sheets commonly provide a single, integrated noise value for apples-to-apples comparisons. Output noise is often integrated from 10Hz to 100kHz and is represented in microvolts root mean square (μVRMS). (Vendors will also integrate noise from 100Hz to 100kHz or even over a custom frequency range. Integrating over a select frequency range can help mask unflattering noise properties, so it’s important to examine the noise curves in addition to the integrated value.) Figure 2 shows integrated noise values that correspond with the various curves. Texas Instruments features a portfolio of LDOs whose integrated noise values measure as low as 3.8μVRMS.

Reducing noise

In addition to selecting an LDO with low noise qualities, you can also employ a couple of techniques to ensure that your LDO has the lowest noise characteristics. These involve the use of noise-reduction and feed-forward capacitors. I will discuss the use of feed-forward capacitors in my next blog.

Noise-reduction capacitors

Many low-noise LDOs in the TI portfolio have a special pin designated as “NR/SS,” as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: An NMOS LDO with an NR/SS pin

The function of this pin is twofold: it’s used to filter noise emanating from the internal voltage reference and to slow the slew rate during startup or enable of the LDO.

Adding a capacitor at this pin (CNR/SS) forms an RC filter with internal resistance, helping shunt undesirable noise generated by the voltage reference. Since the voltage reference is the main contributor to noise, increasing the capacitance helps push the cutoff frequency of the low-pass filter leftward. Figure 4 shows the effect of this capacitor on output noise.

Figure 4: Noise spectral density of the TPS7A91 vs. frequency and CNR/SS

As Figure 4 shows, a greater value of CNR/SS yields better noise figures. At a certain point, however, increasing the capacitance will no longer reduce noise. The remaining noise emanates from the error amplifier, FET, etc.

Adding a capacitor also introduces an RC delay during startup, which causes the output voltage to ramp at a slower rate. This is advantageous when bulk capacitance is present at the output or load and you need to mitigate the in-rush current.

Equation 1 expresses in-rush current as:

                        (1)

In order to reduce in-rush current, you must either lower the output capacitance or lower the slew rate. Fortunately, a CNR/SS helps achieve the latter, as Figure 5 shows for the TPS7A85.

Figure 5: Startup of the TPS7A85 vs. CNR/SS

As you can see, increasing CNR/SS values results in longer startup times, preventing in-rush current from spiking and potentially triggering a current-limit event.

Summary

Low-noise LDOs are critical to ensuring a clean DC power supply. It is important to both select an LDO with low-noise properties and implement techniques to ensure the cleanest output possible. Using an NR/SS capacitor has two benefits: it enables you to control the slew rate and filter reference noise. For more insight on LDOs, check out other blogs in the LDO basics series.

Additional Resources: