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2016

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How Does an Electronic Load Regulate It’s Input Voltage, Current, and Resistance?

In a sense electronic loads are the antithesis of power supplies, i.e. they sink or absorb power while power supplies source power. In another sense they are very similar in the way they regulate constant voltage (CV) or constant current (CC). When used to load a DUT, which inevitably is some form of power source, conventional practice is to use CC loading for devices that are by nature voltage sources and conversely use CV loading for devices that are by nature current sources. However most all electronic loads also feature constant resistance (CR) operation as well. Many real-world loads are resistive by nature and hence it is often useful to test power sources meant to drive such devices with an electronic load operating in CR mode.

To understand how CC and CV modes work in an electronic load it is useful to first review a previous posting I wrote here, entitled “How Does a Power Supply Regulate It’s Output Voltage and Current?”. Again, the CC and CV modes are very similar in operation for both a power supply and an electronic load. An electronic load CC mode operation is depicted in Figure 1.

 

CC FET load CKT

Figure 1: Electronic load circuit, constant current (CC) operation

 

The load, operating in CC mode, is loading the output of an external voltage source. The current amplifier is regulating the electronic load’s input current by comparing the voltage on the current shunt against a reference voltage, which in turn is regulating how hard to turn on the load FET. The corresponding I-V diagram for this CC mode operation is shown in Figure 2. The operating point is where the output voltage characteristic of the DUT voltage source characteristic intersects the input constant current load line of the electronic load.

 

CC FET load IV graph

Figure 2: Electronic load I-V diagram, constant current (CC) operation

 

CV mode is very similar to CC mode operation, as depicted in Figure 3.  However, instead of monitoring the input current with a shunt voltage, a voltage control amplifier compares the load’s input voltage, usually through a voltage divider, against a reference voltage. When the input voltage signal reaches the reference voltage value the voltage amplifier turns the load FET on as much as needed to clamp the voltage to the set level.

 

CV FET load CKT

Figure 3: Electronic load circuit, constant voltage (CV) operation

 

A battery being charged is a real-world example of a CV load, charged typically by a constant current source. The corresponding I-V diagram for CV mode operation is depicted in figure 4.

 

CV FET load IV Graph

Figure 4: Electronic load I-V diagram, constant voltage (CV) operation

 

But how does an electronic load’s CR mode work? This requires yet another configuration, as depicted in figure 5. While CC and CV modes compare current and voltage against a reference value, in CR mode the control amplifier compares the input voltage against the input current so that one is the ratio of the other, now regulating the input at a constant resistance value.  With current sensing at 1 V/A and voltage sensing at 0.2 V/V, the electronic load’s resulting  input resistance value is 5 ohms for its CR mode operation in Figure 5.

 

CR FET load CKT

Figure 5: Electronic load circuit, constant resistance (CR) operation

 

An electronic load’s CR mode is well suited for loading a power source that is either a voltage or current source by nature. The corresponding I-V diagram for this CR mode for loading a voltage source is shown in Figure 6. Here the operating point is where the output voltage characteristic of the DUT voltage source intersects the input constant resistance characteristic of the load.

 

CR FET load IV graph

Figure 6: Electronic load I-V diagram, constant resistance (CR) operation

 

As we have seen here an electronic load is very similar in operation to a power supply in the way it regulates to maintain constant voltage or constant current at its input.  However many real-world loads exhibit other characteristics, with resistive being most prevalent. As a result most all electronic loads are alternately able to regulate their input to maintain a constant resistance value, in addition to constant voltage and constant current.

How Does a Power Supply regulate It’s Output Voltage and Current?

We have talked about Constant Voltage (CV) and Constant Current (CC) power supply operation in many various ways and applications here on the “Watt’s Up?” blog in the past. Indeed, CV and CC are fundamental operating modes of most all power supplies. But what exactly takes place inside the power supply that endows it with the ability to regulate either its output voltage or current, depending on the load? If you ever wondered about this, wonder no longer!

Most all power supplies regulate either their output voltage or output current at a constant level, depending on the load resistance relative to the power supply’s output voltage and current settings. This can be summarized as follows:

  • If R load > (V out / I out) then power supply is in CV mode
  • If R load < (V out / I out) then power supply is in CC mode

To accomplish this most all power supplies have separate voltage and current feedback control loops to limit either the output voltage or current, depending on the load. To illustrate this Figure 1 shows a circuit diagram of a basic 5 volt, 1 amp output series regulated power supply operating in CV mode.

 

CV Operation Circuit

Figure 1: Basic DC Power Supply Circuit, Constant Voltage (CV) Operation

 

The CV and CC control loops/amplifiers each have a reference input value. In this case the reference values are both 1 volt. In order to regulate output voltage the CV error amplifier compares its 1 volt reference against a resistor divider that divides the output voltage down by a factor of 5, limiting the output voltage to 5 volts. Likewise the CC error amplifier compares its 1 volt reference against a 1 ohm current shunt resistor located in the output current path, limiting the output current to 1 amp. For Figure 1 the load resistance is 10 ohms. Because this load resistance is greater than (V out / I out) = 5 ohms, the power supply is operating in CV mode. The CV error amplifier takes control of the series pass transistor by drawing away excess base current from the series pass transistor, though the diode “OR” network. The CV amplifier is operating in closed loop, maintaining its error voltage at zero volts. In comparison, because the actual output current is only 0.5 amps the CC amplifier tries to turn the current on harder but cannot because the CV amplifier has control of the output. The CC amplifier is operating open loop. Its output goes up to its positive limit while it has -0.5 volts of error voltage. The output I-V diagram for this Constant Voltage operation is shown in Figure 2.

 

CV Operation IV Diagram

Figure 2: Power Supply I-V Diagram, CV Operation

 

Now say we increase the load by lowering the output load resistance from 10 ohms down to 3 ohms. Figure 3 shows the circuit diagram of our basic 5 volt, 1 amp output series regulated power supply revised for operating in CC mode with a 3 ohm load resistor.

 

CC Opoeration Circuit

Figure 3: Basic DC Power Supply Circuit, Constant Current (CC) Operation

 

Because the load resistor is lower than (V out / I out) = 5 ohms, the power supply switches to CC mode. The CC error amplifier takes control when the voltage drop on the current shunt resistor increases to match the 1 volt reference value, corresponding to 1 amp output, drawing excess base current from the series pass transistor though the diode “OR” network. The CC amplifier is now operating closed loop, regulating the output current to maintain its input error voltage at zero. In comparison, because the actual output voltage is now only 3 volts the CV amplifier tries to increase the output voltage but cannot because the CC amplifier has control of the output. The CV amplifier is operating open loop. Its output now goes up to its positive limit while it has -0.4 volts of error voltage. The output I-V diagram for this Constant Current operation is shown in Figure 4.

 

CC Operation IV Diagram

Figure 4: Power Supply I-V Diagram, CC Operation

 

As we have seen most all power supplies have separate current and voltage control loops to regulate their outputs in either a Constant Voltage (CV) or in a Constant Current (CC) mode. One or the other takes control, depending on that the load resistance is in relation to what the power supply’s output voltage and current settings are. In this way both the load and power supply are protected by limiting the voltage and current that is delivered by the power supply to the load. By understanding this theory behind a power supply’s CV and CC operation it is also easier to understand the underlying reason for why various power supply characteristics are the way they are, as well as see how other power supply capabilities can be created by building on top of this foundation. Stay tuned!