Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Do you know what a varistor is? If you work on power supplies you have surely noticed them used for transient voltage suppression normally located next to the fuse and before the EMI filter starts connected across the line and neutral. Read the following article to learn more about varistors and MOV(Metal Oxide Varistors).


Schematic symbol

A varistor is an electronic component with a significant nonlinear current–voltage characteristic. The name is a portmanteau of variable resistor. Varistors are often used to protect circuits against excessive transient voltages by incorporating them into the circuit in such a way that, when triggered, they will shunt the current created by the high voltage away from the sensitive components. A varistor is also known as Voltage Dependent Resistor or VDR. A varistor’s function is to conduct significantly increased current when voltage is excessive.

Note: only non-ohmic variable resistors are usually called varistors. Other, ohmic types of variable resistor include the potentiometer and the rheostat.

Metal oxide varistor
The most common type of varistor is the Metal Oxide Varistor (MOV). This contains a ceramic mass of zinc oxide grains, in a matrix of other metal oxides (such as small amounts of bismuth, cobalt, manganese) sandwiched between two metal plates (the electrodes). The boundary between each grain and its neighbour forms a diode junction, which allows current to flow in only one direction. The mass of randomly oriented grains is electrically equivalent to a network of back-to-back diode pairs, each pair in parallel with many other pairs. When a small or moderate voltage is applied across the electrodes, only a tiny current flows, caused by reverse leakage through the diode junctions. When a large voltage is applied, the diode junction breaks down due to a combination of thermionic emission and electron tunneling, and a large current flows. The result of this behaviour is a highly nonlinear current-voltage characteristic, in which the MOV has a high resistance at low voltages and a low resistance at high voltages.

Follow-through current as a result of a lightning strike may generate excessive current that permanently damages a varistor. In general, the primary case of varistor breakdown is localized heating caused as an effect of thermal runaway. This is due to a lack of conformality in individual grain-boundary junctions, which leads to the failure of dominant current paths under thermal stress.

Varistors can absorb part of a surge. How much effect this has on risk to connected equipment depends on the equipment and details of the selected varistor. Varistors do not absorb a significant percentage of a lightning strike, as energy that must be conducted elsewhere is many orders of magnitude greater than what is absorbed by the small device.

A varistor remains non-conductive as a shunt mode device during normal operation when voltage remains well below its "clamping voltage". If a transient pulse (often measured in joules) is too high, the device may melt, burn, vaporize, or otherwise be damaged or destroyed. This (catastrophic) failure occurs when "Absolute Maximum Ratings" in manufacturer's datasheet are significantly exceeded. Varistor degradation is defined by manufacturer's life expectancy charts using curves that relate current, time, and number of transient pulses. A varistor fully degrades typically when its "clamping voltage" has changed by 10%. A fully degraded varistor remains functional (no catastrophic failure) and is not visibly damaged.

Ballpark number for varistor life expectancy is its energy rating. As MOV joules increase, the number of transient pulses increases and the "clamping voltage" during each transient decreases. The purpose of this shunt mode device is to divert a transient so that pulse energy will be dissipated elsewhere. Some energy is also absorbed by the varistor because a varistor is not a perfect conductor. Less energy is absorbed by a varistor, the varistor is more conductive, and its life expectancy increases exponentially as varistor energy rating is increased. Catastrophic failure can be avoided by significantly increasing varistor energy ratings either by using a varistor of higher joules or by connecting more of these shunt mode devices in parallel.

Important parameters are a varistor's energy rating (in joules), response time (how long it takes the varistor to break down), maximum current and a well-defined breakdown (clamping) voltage. Energy rating is often defined using 'industry standard' transients such as 8/20 microseconds or 10/1000 microseconds. MOVs are intended for shunting short duration pulses. For example, 8 microseconds is a transient's rise time; 20 microseconds is the fall time.

To protect communications lines (such as telephone lines) transient suppression devices such as 3 mil carbon blocks (IEEE C62.32), ultra-low capacitance varistors or avalanche diodes are used. For higher frequencies such as radio communication equipment, a gas discharge tube (GDT) may be utilized.

A typical surge protector power strip is built using MOVs. A cheapest kind may use just one varistor, from hot (live, active) to neutral. A better protector would contain at least three varistors; one across each of the three pairs of conductors (hot-neutral, hot-ground, neutral-ground). A power strip protector in the United States should have a UL1449 2nd edition approval so that catastrophic MOV failure would not create a fire hazard.

Continue reading more about varistors by clicking here.

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