Measuring 2 nV/√Hz noise and 120 dB supply rejection in linear regulators; the Quest for Quiet, part 2

February 01, 2016 // By Todd Owen and Amit Patel
A quiet, well regulated supply is important for optimum performance in a number of circuit applications; linear regulators are required to provide quiet power supply rails, but how does one ensure that the regulator performs as specified?

Part 1 of this article is here.

Component choice is important

Choosing the right components for any circuit is important, but when it comes to ultralow noise measurement, it becomes even more so. The most critical point in the noise amplifier is the input stage; once you get beyond this first stage many of the difficulties drop away. The RC filter used for DC blocking directly at the input must be carefully considered.

The resistor is not one where there is much to debate; a metal film resistor is used to ensure low 1/f noise as compared to thin film resistors. The capacitor is another matter entirely that must be reviewed. In AN124, an expensive wet slug tantalum was used to provide low 1/f noise after being hand-selected for low leakage. When operating as low as 0.1 Hz, these characteristics are more important. With a 10 Hz low frequency band stop for broadband noise, lower cost capacitors provide acceptable performance. Large multilayer ceramic capacitors are a poor choice as they are piezoelectric in nature; any mechanical vibration injects signal into the circuit that quickly exceeds the measured noise levels. Additionally, the voltage coefficient causes a change in the corner frequency based on the regulator output voltage, an undesirable characteristic. Tantalum and aluminium electrolytic capacitors are not costly and do not show voltage coefficients or mechanical sensitivity. More expensive capacitors such as polyethylene-terephthalate film were considered, but low availability, high cost, and lack of performance gain ruled them out.

Even with these possible choices, capacitors do show noise characteristics that must be considered. Large multilayer ceramic capacitors show low noise operation but have already been ruled out due to their mechanical vibration sensitivity. Tantalum and aluminium electrolytic capacitors show higher levels of noise (see Sikula, et al. in References for further reading). Standard tantalum capacitors were finally chosen for their reasonable cost, good characteristics with bias voltage, and lack of response to physical vibrations. Multiple capacitors are paralleled to get the voltage rating and net capacitance needed, while lowering the contributed noise.

The blocking/filtering between first stage gain blocks and the second stage gain block was also chosen to be tantalum for similar reasons. Even though the gain from the first stage amplified the noise, ceramics were found to generate signal from piezoelectric response beyond desired levels.

Almost any capacitor is suitable for the final output blocking/filtering networks, ceramic capacitors are chosen. The amplified noise is now large enough in relation to piezoelectric response from the capacitors, and the lack of DC offset means that capacitors are close to their expected values. Capacitors for compensation in the first gain stage and also the ones used in the Butterworth filters are C0G, NPO, or polyethylene-terephthalate as these dielectrics show little to no piezoelectric effect or DC bias shifts.

Powering the circuit itself is one last important decision. Battery power from alkaline cells was chosen to provide the quietest source for all stages and prevent possible ground loops in equipment from corrupting measurements. One must remember that all circuits used here do not have infinite supply rejection capabilities and any noise on supplies can make it through to the outputs and potentially affect measurement results. Take this into careful consideration before choosing to supply power from any line-based supply.

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