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Finesse Regulator Noise

System designers often find themselves battling power supply hum, noise, transients, and various perturbations wreaking havoc with low noise amplifiers, oscillators, and other sensitive devices. Many voltage regulators have excessive levels of output noise including voltage spikes from switching circuits and high flicker noise levels from unfiltered references.
Ordinary three-terminal regulators will have several hundred nanovolts per root-hertz of white noise and some reference devices exceed one microvolt per root-hertz. DC to DC converters and switching regulators may have switching products ranging into the millivolt range covering a wide frequency spectrum. And many systems have offending devices that “dirty up” otherwise clean supply rails.

The traditional approach to reducing such noise products to acceptable levels could be called the “brute force” approach – a large-value inductor combined with a capacitor or a clean-up regulator inserted between the noisy regulator and load. In either case, the clean-up circuit is handling the entire load current in order to “get at” the noise. The approach described in this paper uses a bit of finesse to remove the undesired noise without directly handling the supply’s high current.

The key to understanding the “finesse” approach is to realize that the noise voltage is many orders of magnitude below the regulated voltage, even when integrated over a fairly wide bandwidth. For example, a 10 volt regulator might exhibit 10 uV of noise in a 10 kHz bandwidth – six orders of magnitude below 10 volts. Naturally, the noise current that flows in a resistive load due to this noise voltage is also six orders of magnitude below the DC. By adding a tiny resistor, R, in series with the output of the regulator and assuming that a circuit somehow manages to reduce the noise voltage at the load to zero, the noise current from the regulator may be calculated as Vn/R. If the resistor is 1 ohm then, in this example, the noise current will be 10uV/1ohm = 10uA – a very tiny current! If a current-sink can be designed to sink this amount of AC noise current to ground at the load, no noise current will flow in the load. By amplifying the noise with an inverting transconductance amplifier with the right amount of gain, the required current sink may be realized. The required transconductance is simply -1/R where R is the tiny series resistor.

Consider the low power version shown in fig. 1 which might be suitable for cleaning up the supply to a low current device. A 15 ohm resistor is inserted in series with the regulator’s output giving a 150 millivolt drop when the load draws 10 mA – typical for a low-noise preamplifier or oscillator circuit. The single transistor amplifier has an emitter resistor which combines with the emitter diode’s resistance to give a value near 15 ohms. The regulator’s noise voltage appears across this resistor so the noise current is shunted to ground through the transistor’s collector. The noise reduction can be over 20dB without trimming the resistor values and the intrinsic noise of the 2N4401 is only about 1 nanovolt per root-hertz. Trimming the emitter resistor can achieve noise reduction greater than 40 dB.

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