Experimenting with Dielectric Absorption

Dielectric absorption occurs when a capacitor that has been charged for a long time briefly retains a small amount of voltage after a discharge.

“The capacitor will have this small amount of voltage even if an attempt was made to fully discharge it,” according to the website wiseGEEK. “This effect usually lasts a few seconds to a few minutes.”

While it’s certainly best for capacitors to have zero voltage after discharge, they often retain a small amount through dielectric absorption—a phenomenon caused by polarization of the capacitor’s insulating material, according to the website. This voltage (also called soakage) is totally independent of capacity.

At the very least, soakage can impair the function of a circuit. In large capacitor systems, it can be a serious safety hazard.

But soakage has been around a long time, at least since the invention of the first simple capacitor, the Leyden jar, in 1775. So columnist Robert Lacoste decided to have some “fun” with it in Circuit Cellar’s February issue, where he writes about several of his experiments in detecting and measuring dielectric absorption.

Curious? Then consider following his instructions for a basic experiment:

Go down to your cellar, or your electronic playing area, and find the following: one large electrolytic capacitor (e.g., 2,200 µF or anything close, the less expensive the better), one low-value discharge resistor (100 Ω or so), one DC power supply (around 10 V, but this is not critical), one basic oscilloscope, two switches, and a couple of wires. If you don’t have an oscilloscope on hand, don’t panic, you could also use a hand-held digital multimeter with a pencil and paper, since the phenomenon I am showing is quite slow. The only requirement is that your multimeter must have a high-input impedance (1 MΩ would be minimum, 10 MΩ is better).

Figure 1: The setup for experimenting with dielectric absorption doesn’t require more than a capacitor, a resistor, some wires and switches, and a voltage measuring instrument.

Figure 1: The setup for experimenting with dielectric absorption doesn’t require more than a capacitor, a resistor, some wires and switches, and a voltage measuring instrument.

Figure 1 shows the setup. Connect the oscilloscope (or multimeter) to the capacitor. Connect the power supply to the capacitor through the first switch (S1) and then connect the discharge resistor to the capacitor through the second switch (S2). Both switches should be initially open. Photo 1 shows you my simple test configuration.

Now turn on S1. The voltage across the capacitor quickly reaches the power supply voltage. There is nothing fancy here. Start the oscilloscope’s voltage recording using a slow time base of 10 s or so. If you are using a multimeter, use a pen and paper to note the measured voltage. Then, after 10 s, disconnect the power supply by opening S1. The voltage across the capacitor should stay roughly constant as the capacitor is loaded and the losses are reasonably low.

Photo 1: My test bench includes an Agilent Technologies DSO-X-3024A oscilloscope, which is oversized for such an experiment.

Photo 1: My test bench includes an Agilent Technologies DSO-X-3024A oscilloscope, which is oversized for such an experiment.

Now switch on S2 long enough to fully discharge the capacitor through the 100-Ω resistor. As a result of the discharge, the voltage across the capacitor’s terminals will quickly become very low. The required duration for a full discharge is a function of the capacitor and resistor values, but with the proposed values of 2,200 µF and 100 Ω, the calculation shows that it will be lower than 1 mV after 2 s. If you leave S2 closed for 10 s, you will ensure the capacitor is fully discharged, right?

Now the fun part. After those 10 s, switch off S2, open your eyes, and wait. The capacitor is now open circuited, at least if the voltmeter or oscilloscope input current can be neglected, so the capacitor voltage should stay close to zero. But you will soon discover that this voltage slowly increases over time with an exponential shape.

Photo 2 shows the plot I got using my Agilent Technologies DSO-X 3024A digital oscilloscope. With the capacitor I used, the voltage went up to about 120 mV in 2 min, as if the capacitor was reloaded through another voltage source. What is going on here? There aren’t any aliens involved. You have just discovered a phenomenon called dielectric absorption!

Photo 2: I used a 2,200-µF capacitor, a 100-Ω discharge resistor, and a 10-s discharge duration to obtain this oscilloscope plot. After 2 min the voltage reached 119 mV due to the dielectric absorption effect.

Photo 2: I used a 2,200-µF capacitor, a 100-Ω discharge resistor, and a 10-s discharge duration to obtain this oscilloscope plot. After 2 min the voltage reached 119 mV due to the dielectric absorption effect.

Nothing in Lacoste’s column about experimenting with dielectric absorption is shocking (and that’s a good thing when you’re dealing with “hidden” voltage). But the column is certainly informative.

To learn more about dielectric absorption, what causes it, how to detect it, and its potential effects on electrical systems, check out Lacoste’s column in the February issue. The issue is now available for download by members or single-issue purchase.

Lacoste highly recommends another resource for readers interested in the topic.

“Bob Pease’s Electronic Design article ‘What’s All This Soakage Stuff Anyhow?’ provides a complete analysis of this phenomenon,” Lacoste says. “In particular, Pease reminds us that the model for a capacitor with dielectric absorption effect is a big capacitor in parallel with several small capacitors in series with various large resistors.”

Protocol-Decoding Oscilloscope Software

Agilent2Agilent Technologies has introduced the N8819A USB 3.0 SSIC and N8820A MIPI CSI-3 protocol decoders. The software decodes USB 3.0 SuperSpeed Inter-Chip (SSIC) and MIPI Camera Serial Interface 3 (CSI-3) protocols on oscilloscopes. The protocol decoders provide engineers with a fast, easy way to validate and debug SSIC and CSI-3 interfaces.

The N8819A USB 3.0 SSIC and N8820A MIPI CSI-3 protocol decoders are designed to run on 90000 A-, 90000 X-, and 90000 Q-Series oscilloscopes. They decode protocol packets for the SSIC V1.0 and MIPI CSI-3 V1.0 specifications, respectively. The decoders provide accurate timing measurements associated with the protocols.

The software supports correlated protocol decode information with the analog waveforms; symbol, packet, frame, and payload detail of the protocols; high-speed (HS-BURST) and low-speed PWM (PWM-BURST) transmission modes; cyclical redundancy check (CRC) on the packets; and search capability for various frames, sequences, and errors.

Both protocol decoders can be used on Infiniium 90000 Q-Series oscilloscopes, which deliver real-time bandwidth of up to 33 GHz on four channels. The oscilloscopes feature bandwidth upgradability to 63 GHz and low noise and jitter measurement floor performance.

The Agilent N8819A USB 3.0 SSIC and N8820A MIPI CSI-3 protocol decoders cost $3,500 and $3,000, respectively.

Agilent Technologies, Inc.

A Look at Low-Noise Amplifiers

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio, who has a PhD in Physics, is an Italian telecommunications engineer who works mainly as a software developer with a focus on data acquisition systems. Emilio has authored articles about electronic designs, data acquisition systems, power supplies, and photovoltaic systems. In this article, he provides an overview of what is generally available in low-noise amplifiers (LNAs) and some of the applications.

By Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio
An LNA, or preamplifier, is an electronic amplifier used to amplify sometimes very weak signals. To minimize signal power loss, it is usually located close to the signal source (antenna or sensor). An LNA is ideal for many applications including low-temperature measurements, optical detection, and audio engineering. This article presents LNA systems and ICs.

Signal amplifiers are electronic devices that can amplify a relatively small signal from a sensor (e.g., temperature sensors and magnetic-field sensors). The parameters that describe an amplifier’s quality are:

  • Gain: The ratio between output and input power or amplitude, usually measured in decibels
  • Bandwidth: The range of frequencies in which the amplifier works correctly
  • Noise: The noise level introduced in the amplification process
  • Slew rate: The maximum rate of voltage change per unit of time
  • Overshoot: The tendency of the output to swing beyond its final value before settling down

Feedback amplifiers combine the output and input so a negative feedback opposes the original signal (see Figure 1). Feedback in amplifiers provides better performance. In particular, it increases amplification stability, reduces distortion, and increases the amplifier’s bandwidth.

 Figure 1: A feedback amplifier model is shown here.

Figure 1: A feedback amplifier model is shown.

A preamplifier amplifies an analog signal, generally in the stage that precedes a higher-power amplifier.

Op-amps are widely used as AC amplifiers. Linear Technology’s LT1028 or LT1128 and Analog Devices’s ADA4898 or AD8597 are especially suitable ultra-low-noise amplifiers. The LT1128 is an ultra-low-noise, high-speed op-amp. Its main characteristics are:

  • Noise voltage: 0.85 nV/√Hz at 1 kHz
  • Bandwidth: 13 MHz
  • Slew rate: 5 V/µs
  • Offset voltage: 40 µV

Both the Linear Technology and Analog Devices amplifiers have voltage noise density at 1 kHz at around 1 nV/√Hz  and also offer excellent DC precision. Texas Instruments (TI)  offers some very low-noise amplifiers. They include the OPA211, which has 1.1 nV/√Hz  noise density at a  3.6 mA from 5 V supply current and the LME49990, which has very low distortion. Maxim Integrated offers the MAX9632 with noise below 1nV/√Hz.

The op-amp can be realized with a bipolar junction transistor (BJT), as in the case of the LT1128, or a MOSFET, which works at higher frequencies and with a higher input impedance and a lower energy consumption. The differential structure is used in applications where it is necessary to eliminate the undesired common components to the two inputs. Because of this, low-frequency and DC common-mode signals (e.g., thermal drift) are eliminated at the output. A differential gain can be defined as (Ad = A2 – A1) and a common-mode gain can be defined as (Ac = A1 + A2 = 2).

An important parameter is the common-mode rejection ratio (CMRR), which is the ratio of common-mode gain to the differential-mode gain. This parameter is used to measure the  differential amplifier’s performance.

Figure 2: The design of a simple preamplifier is shown. Its main components are the Linear Technology LT112 and the Interfet IF3602 junction field-effect transistor (JFET).

Figure 2: The design of a simple preamplifier is shown. Its main components are the Linear Technology LT1128 and the Interfet IF3602 junction field-effect transistor (JFET).

Figure 2 shows a simple preamplifier’s design with 0.8 nV/√Hz at 1 kHz background noise. Its main components are the LT1128 and the Interfet IF3602 junction field-effect transistor (JFET).  The IF3602 is a dual N-channel JFET used as stage for the op-amp’s input. Figure 3 shows the gain and Figure 4 shows the noise response.

Figure 3: The gain of a low-noise preamplifier.

Figure 3: The is a low-noise preamplifier’s gain.


Figure 4: The noise response of a low-noise preamplifier

Figure 4: A low-noise preamplifier’s noise response is shown.

The Stanford Research Systems SR560 low-noise voltage preamplifier has a differential front end with 4nV/√Hz input noise and a 100-MΩ input impedance (see Photo 1a). Input offset nulling is accomplished by a front-panel potentiometer, which is accessible with a small screwdriver. In addition to the signal inputs, a rear-panel TTL blanking input enables you to quickly turn the instrument’s gain on and off (see Photo 1b).

Photo 1a:The Stanford Research Systems SR560 low-noise voltage preamplifier

Photo 1a: The Stanford Research Systems SR560 low-noise voltage preamplifier. (Photo courtesy of Stanford Research Systems)

Photo 1 b: A rear-panel TTL blanking input enables you to quickly turn the Stanford Research Systems SR560 gain on and off.

Photo 1b: A rear-panel TTL blanking input enables you to quickly turn the Stanford Research Systems SR560 gain on and off. (Photo courtesy of Stanford Research Systems)

The Picotest J2180A low-noise preamplifier provides a fixed 20-dB gain while converting a 1-MΩ input impedance to a 50-Ω output impedance and 0.1-Hz to 100-MHz bandwidth (see Photo 2). The preamplifier is used to improve the sensitivity of oscilloscopes, network analyzers, and spectrum analyzers while reducing the effective noise floor and spurious response.

Photo 2: The Picotest J2180A low-noise preamplifier is shown.

Photo 2: The Picotest J2180A low-noise preamplifier is shown. (Photo courtesy of picotest.com)

Signal Recovery’s Model 5113 is among the best low-noise preamplifier systems. Its principal characteristics are:

  • Single-ended or differential input modes
  • DC to 1-MHz frequency response
  • Optional low-pass, band-pass, or high-pass signal channel filtering
  • Sleep mode to eliminate digital noise
  • Optically isolated RS-232 control interface
  • Battery or line power

The 5113 (see Photo 3 and Figure 5) is used in applications as diverse as radio astronomy, audiometry, test and measurement, process control, and general-purpose signal amplification. It’s also ideally suited to work with a range of lock-in amplifiers.

Photo 3: This is the Signal Recovery Model 5113 low-noise pre-amplifier.

Photo 3: This is the Signal Recovery Model 5113 low-noise preamplifier. (Photo courtesy of Signal Recovery)

Figure 5: Noise contour figures are shown for the Signal Recovery Model 5113.

Figure 5: Noise contour figures are shown for the Signal Recovery Model 5113.

This article briefly introduced low-noise amplifiers, in particular IC system designs utilized in simple or more complex systems such as the Signal Recovery Model 5113, which is a classic amplifier able to obtain different frequency bands with relative gain. A similar device is the SR560, which is a high-performance, low-noise preamplifier that is ideal for a wide variety of applications including low-temperature measurements, optical detection, and audio engineering.

Moreover, the Krohn-Hite custom Models 7000 and 7008 low-noise differential preamplifiers provide a high gain amplification to 1 MHz with an AC output derived from a very-low-noise FET instrumentation amplifier.

One common LNA amplifier is a satellite communications system. The ground station receiving antenna will connect to an LNA, which is needed because the received signal is weak. The received signal is usually a little above background noise. Satellites have limited power, so they use low-power transmitters.

Telecommunications engineer Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio was born in Pescara, Italy. Working mainly as a software developer with a focus on data acquisition systems, he helped design the thermal compensation system (TCS) for the optical system used in the Virgo Experiment (an experiment for detecting gravitational waves). Maurizio currently collaborates with researchers at the University of L’Aquila on X-ray technology. He also develops data acquisition hardware and software for industrial applications and manages technical training courses. To learn more about Maurizio and his expertise, read his essay on “The Future of Data Acquisition Technology.”

Client Profile: Pico Technology

Pico Technology
320 North Glenwood Boulevard
Tyler, TX 75702

Contact: sales@picotech.com

Embedded Products/Services: Pico Technology’s PicoScope 5000 series uses reconfigurable ADC technology to offer a choice of resolutions from 8 to 16 bits. For more information, visit www.picotech.com/picoscope5000.html.

PicoProduct information: The new PicoScope 5000 series oscilloscopes have a significantly different architecture. High-resolution ADCs can be applied to the input channels in different series and parallel combinations to boost the sampling rate or the resolution.

In Series mode, the ADCs are interleaved to provide 1 GB/s at 8 bits. In Parallel mode, multiple ADCs are sampled in phase on each channel to increase the resolution and dynamic performance (up to 16 bits).

In addition to their flexible resolution, the oscilloscopes have ultra-deep memory buffers of up to 512 MB to enable long captures at high sampling rates. They also feature standard, advanced software, including serial decoding, mask limit testing, and segmented memory.

The PicoScope 5000 series oscilloscopes are currently available at www.picotech.com.

The two-channel, 60-MHz model with built-function generator costs $1,153. The four-channel, 200-MHz model with built-in arbitrary waveform generator (AWG) costs $2,803. The pricing includes a set of matched probes, all necessary software, and a five-year warranty.

New Products: July 2013



The USBee QX is a PC-based mixed-signal oscilloscope (MSO) integrated with a protocol analyzer utilizing USB 3.0 and Wi-Fi technology. The highly integrated, 600-MHz MSO features 24 digital channels and four analog channels.

With its large 896-Msample buffer memory and data compression capability, the USBeeQX can capture up to 32 days of traces. It displays serial or parallel protocols in a human-readable format, enabling developers to find and resolve obscure and difficult defects. The MOS includes popular serial protocols (e.g., RS-232/UARTs, SPI, I2C, CAN, SDIO, Async, 1-Wire, and I2S), which are typically costly add-ons for benchtop oscilloscopes. The MOS utilizes APIs and Tool Builders that are integrated into the USBee QX software to support any custom protocol.

The USBee QX’s Wi-Fi capability enables you set up testing in the lab while you are at your desk. The Wi-Fi capability also creates electrical isolation of the device under test to the host computer.

The USBee QX costs $2,495.

CWAV, Inc.


DownStream Technologies FabStream


FabStream is an integrated PCB design and manufacturing solution designed for the DIY electronics market, including small businesses, start-ups, engineers, inventors, hobbyists, and other electronic enthusiasts. FabStream consists of free SoloPCB Design software customized to each manufacturing partner in the FabStream network.

The FabStream service works in three easy steps. First, you log onto the FabStream website (www.fabstream.com), select a FabStream manufacturing partner, and download the free design software. Next, you create PCB libraries, schematics, and board layouts. Finally, the software leads you through the process of ordering PCBs online with the manufacturer. You only pay for the PCBs you purchase. Because the service is mostly Internet-based, FabStream can be accessed globally and is available 24/7/365.

FabStream’s free SoloPCB Design software includes a commercial-quality schematic capture, PCB layout, and autorouting in one, easy-to-use environment. The software is customized to each manufacturing partner. All of the manufacturer’s production capabilities are built into SoloPCB, enabling you to work within the manufacturers’ constraints. Design changes can be made and then verified through an integrated analyzer that uses a quick pass/fail check to compare the modification to the manufacturer’s rules.

SoloPCB does not contain any CAM outputs. Instead, a secure, industry-standard IPC-2581 manufacturing file is automatically extracted, encrypted, and electronically routed to the manufacturer during the ordering process. The IPC-2581 file contains all the design information needed for manufacturing, which eliminates the need to create Gerber and NC drill files.

FabStream is available as a free download. More information can be found at www.fabstream.com

DownStream Technologies, LLC


Rohde Schwarz SMW200A


The R&S SMW200A high-performance vector signal generator combines flexibility, performance, and intuitive operation to quickly and easily generate complex, high-quality signals for LTE Advanced and next-generation mobile standards. The generator is designed to simpify complex 4G device testing.

With its versatile configuration options, the R&S SMW200A’s range of applications extends from single-path vector signal generation to multichannel multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) receiver testing. The vector signal generator provides a baseband generator, a RF generator, and a real-time MIMO fading simulator in a single instrument.

The R&S SMW200A covers the100 kHz-to-3-GHz, or 6 GHz, frequency range, and features a 160-MHz I/Q modulation bandwidth with internal baseband. The generator is well suited for verification of 3G and 4G base stations and aerospace and defense applications.

The R&S SMW200A can be equipped with an optional second RF path for frequencies up to 6 GHz. It can have a a maximum of two baseband and four fading simulator modules, providing users with two full-featured vector signal generators in a single unit. Fading scenarios, such as 2 × 2 MIMO, 8 × 2 MIMO for TD-LTE, and 2 × 2 MIMO for LTE Advanced carrier aggregation, can be easily simulated.

Higher-order MIMO applications (e.g., 3 × 3 MIMO for WLAN or 4 × 4 MIMO for LTE-FDD) are easily supported by connecting a third and fourth source to the R&S SMW200A. The R&S SGS100A are highly compact RF sources that are controlled directly from the front panel of the R&S SMW200A.

The R&S SMW200A ensures high accuracy in spectral and modulation measurements. The SSB phase noise is –139 dBc (typical) at 1 GHz (20 kHz offset). Help functions are provided for additional ease-of-use, and presets are provided for all important digital standards and fading scenarios. LTE and UMTS test case wizards simplify complex base station conformance testing in line with the 3GPP specification.

Contact Rohde & Schwarz for pricing.

Rohde & Schwarz


Texas Instruments CC2538


The Texas Instruments (TI) CC2538 system-on-chip (SoC) is designed to simplify the development of ZigBee wireless connectivity-enabled smart energy infrastructure, home and building automation, and intelligent lighting gateways. The cost-efficient SoC features an ARM Cortex-M3 microcontroller, memory, and hardware accelerators on one piece of silicon. The CC2538 supports ZigBee PRO, ZigBee Smart Energy and ZigBee Home Automation and lighting standards to deliver interoperability with existing and future ZigBee products. The SoC also uses IEEE 802.15.4 and 6LoWPAN IPv6 networks to support IP standards-based development.

The CC2538 is capable of supporting fast digital management and features scalable memory options from 128 to 512 KB flash to support smart energy infrastructure applications. The SoC sustains a mesh network with hundreds of end nodes using integrated 8-to-32-KB RAM options that are pin-for-pin compatible for maximum flexibility.

The CC2538’s additional benefits include temperature operation up to 125°C, optimization for battery-powered applications using only 1.3 uA in Sleep mode, and efficient processing for centralized networks and reduced bill of materials cost through integrated ARM Cortex-M3 core.

The CC2538 development kit (CC2538DK) provides a complete development platform for the CC2538, enabling users to see all functionality without additional layout. It comes with high-performance CC2538 evaluation modules (CC2538EMK) and motherboards with an integrated ARM Cortex-M3 debug probe for software development and peripherals including an LCD, buttons, LEDs, light sensor and accelerometer for creating demo software. The boards are also compatible with TI’s SmartRF Studio for running RF performance tests. The CC2538 supports current and future Z-Stack releases from TI and over-the-air software downloads for easier upgrades in the field.

The CC2538 is available in an 8-mm x 8-mm QFN56 package and costs $3 in high volumes. The CC2538 is also available through TI’s free sample program. The CC2538DK costs $299.

Texas Instruments, Inc.