High Current Board Design and its Real World Applications

Created: February 6, 2018
Updated: November 12, 2020

High current PCB design

With the rise of PCB applications stretching far and wide, designs are being created for applications that extend past simple signal integrity solutions. Advancements in material technology, PCB manufacturing capabilities, and the rising demand for PCB design is opening up the floor for many industries that otherwise have been dormant in the PCB world. Many limitations that were not present a handful of years ago are beginning to loosen.

Of course, one of the largest constraints for PCBs was how to get PCBs handling large power distribution networks, high voltage, and high current capacities without being massive, bulking structures. Here, we’re going to explore a few real-world applications of the advancements that folks are bringing to the table with high current PCB applications.

On the Rise: PCB Applications in High Current

When discussing applications in high current, most of the time, we will be dealing with the distribution and management of power through the PCB. This, however, was once an area that was not explored by any, no matter how brave. Mixing signals in your PCB was simply far too complex of an operation since many of the components on a dedicated board have their own power requirements and would be a nightmare to work with.

In addition, the availability to print boards that could physically handle the loads weren’t up to par. But we are moving forward at an extremely quick rate and are exploring the depths of mixing signals again based on the emerging technology, and rising demand. In order to ensure that we are staying safe within this explosive domain, it is important that we are maintaining our checks and analysis of the heat and power maps for our designs.

Solar Panel Power Distribution

One industry in which technology advancements are being leveraged is within the solar panel arena. I like to conceptualize PCBs in relation to non-printed circuits as a flattened version of a bird’s nest of wires and components. Imagine the days where we still relied on physical cables to run signals through circuits—what a mess. The solar panel industry evolved around the same school of thought; “Let’s take all this great technology, and flatten everything onto a board.”

Solar panels on a roof
Power distribution within solar panel systems are often carrying high current loads

Solar panels and PCBs go together hand-in-hand based on their mutual respect for the flat-pack thinking, but what does this have to do with high current applications? Consider the purpose of a solar panel and you’ll see that it is a large (hopefully getting smaller) battery. Since PCBs are usually designed for small voltage and low current signal operations, this poses a challenge for the high voltage and current that comes with functional solar panels.

Through advances in current-carrying capabilities for a copper PCB, the challenge is being mitigated. What is typically referred to as ‘heavy copper,’ is changing the way that folks look at PCBs. This heavy copper enables power distribution to be installed on signal boards. Of course, it causes integrity issues and will need careful consideration when designing a heavy copper PCB, but when leveraged correctly, your power and signal operations can be married onto a high power PCB.

Freeing Up Some Space

Of all the industries there is none more scrutinous than that of the military. This is true in most applications, let alone that of utilizing high current PCBs within its products. Along with the similar demand and technology that is shaping the solar panel industry, smaller and more capable designs are being pushed further into military designs. More specifically, power distribution (as well as transformations) are becoming integrated straight into the PCB.

Of the many examples that could be listed, I came across a game-changing design that is currently being studied and applied to a variety of systems. Within each craft produced by the military, most will inevitably have a radar system embedded within. Space, however, is extremely limited within these crafts as they continue to pump in more and more tech.

Military radar screen
Transformation of power is now being integrated within radar system’s PCBs.

One of the largest space suckers I’ve had the honor of dealing with is that of the transformer—those massive hunks of iron that embody hundreds of copper windings to induct the transfer of energy. These high current transformers, crucial to providing proper power to said radar systems, are now being squished down to their flattest possible shape: PCBs. These designs are even showing comparable results to that of their hunky counterparts.

As you can imagine this will be changing the way power distribution is managed and designed. But why stop there? If we can flatten transformers to integrate directly onto the PCB, what other innovations will follow suit? What other shapes and systems will soon be flattened and integrated?

Flattened Power, High Current: What’s the Catch?

Of these emerging technologies, specifically within the newer designs of PCB power management, there will exist some considerations that must be taken into account in order for efforts to proceed in a smooth and orderly fashion. One overarching issue that will arise with these new power systems is, of course, that of thermal management.

Uneven distribution of power and current within these printed circuit board applications can wreak havoc on and in some cases even be catastrophic to your design. Imagine your solar panel catching fire atop your beautiful tiny house.

Great care and specific analysis will be required when joining in on the high current, flattened powered, PCB wave that we are seeing from the forefront of innovation. Leveraging features similar to Altium’s PDN Analyzer will be the first line of defense when it comes to keeping your multi-power network and current densities in check and not on fire.

Whatever the future will continue to bring within the high power PCB designs, we can be sure that by scrutinizing our designs with great software like Altium Designer®, as well as keeping other simple, yet effective pillars of design in mind, we can continue to push the envelope to further extents.

If you are curious to see what other benefits Altium Designer can bring to your high current design, talk to an Altium Designer expert today.

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