One significant drawback of a linear DC power supply is its efficiency for most applications. You can generally design a linear DC power supply with reasonable efficiency when both the output and input voltage values are fixed. However, when either or both of these vary over a wide range, after assuring the DC power supply will properly regulate at low input voltage and/or high output voltage, it then has to dissipate considerable power the other extremes.
For DC power supplies running off an AC line, having to accommodate a fairly wide range of AC input voltage is a given. A 35% increase in line voltage from the minimum to the maximum value is not uncommon. Today’s high frequency switching based power supplies have resolved the issue of efficiency as a function of input line voltage variance. However, prior to widespread adaptation of high frequency switching DC power supplies, variety of different types of low-frequency pre-regulators were developed for linear DC power supplies
What is a pre-regulator? A pre-regulator is a circuit that provides a regulated voltage to the linear output stage from an unregulated voltage derived from the AC line voltage, with little loss of power. Although not nearly as commonly used as other pre-regulator schemes, on rare occasion ferroresonant transformers were used as an effective and efficient pre-regulator in DC power supplies.
What is a ferroresonant transformer? It is similar to a regular transformer in that it transforms AC voltage through primary and secondary windings. Unlike a regular transformer however, once it reaches a certain AC input voltage level it starts regulating its AC output voltage at a fixed level even as the AC input voltage continues to rise, as depicted in Figure 1. Ferroresonant transformers are also commonly called constant voltage transformers, or CVTs.
Figure 1: Ferroresonant transformer input-output transfer characteristic
The ferroresonant transformer employs a rather unique magnetic structure that places a magnetic shunt leakage path between the primary and secondary windings. This structure is illustrated in Figure 2. This way only part of the transformer structure saturates at a higher fixed peak voltage level during each AC half cycle. When part of the core magnetically saturates, the primary and secondary windings are effectively decoupled. The AC capacitor on the secondary side resonates with existing inductance. This provides the carry-over energy to the load during this magnetically saturated phase, holding up the voltage level. The resulting waveform is a clipped sine wave with a fairly high level of harmonic distortion as a result. Some more modern designs include additional filtering that can bring the harmonic distortion down to just a few percent however.
Figure 2: Ferroresonant transformer structure
A ferroresonant transformer has some very appealing characteristics in addition to output voltage regulation:
- Provides isolation from line spikes and noise that is normally coupled through on conventional transformers
- Provides protection from AC line voltage surges
- Provides carry over during momentary AC line drop outs that are of a fraction of a line cycle
- Limits its output current if short-circuited
- Extremely robust and reliable
Because of a number of other tradeoffs it is unlikely that you will find them in a DC power supply today. High frequency switching designs pretty much totally dominate in performance and cost. Ferroresonant transformer design tradeoffs include:
- Large physical size
- Relatively expensive and specialized
- Limited to a specific line frequency as it resonates at that frequency
So, even though you are very unlikely to encounter a ferroresonant transformer in a DC power supply today, it’s interesting to see there still appears to be a healthy demand for ferroresonant transformers as AC line conditioners in a wide range of sizes, up to AC line power utility sizes. Their inherent simplicity and robustness is hard to beat when long term, maintenance-free, reliable service is paramount, and AC line regulation in many regions around the world cannot be counted on to be well controlled.