Which Types of Opto-Isolators Are Right For Your Signal?

Mark Harris
|  Created: September 1, 2021  |  Updated: September 13, 2021
Which Types of Opto-Isolators Are Right For Your Signal?

An opto-isolator is an electronic device that can be used to pass information between a diode without passing an electrical current. Because there is no need ot directly pass voltage or current between the inputs and outputs in an opto-isolator, these components can be used to provide electrical isolation two regions in a PCB. Opto-isolators act as a protection mechanism, ensuring that harmful electrical currents cannot flow across the device.

In simplest terms, an opto-isolator works by taking an input electrical signal and converting it into a light signal using a light-emitting diode, generally operating in the near-infrared spectrum. Then, within the same device, a light-sensitive device such as a photodiode, phototransistor, or photodarlington transistor converts the light signal back into an electrical signal. This provides a barrier to any voltage transients or overvoltage levels that appear at the input from affecting the electrical circuit at the output of the opto-isolator. The components are sealed in an opaque package to prevent interference from external light.

Opto-isolators are widely used in communications, control, and monitoring systems where data signals could provide a point of ingress for harmful voltages to damage a device. They are particularly useful where long data cables that could be susceptible to induced voltage transients or ground plane surges enter an electronic device containing sensitive semiconductor components.

Important Specifications When Choosing an Opto-isolator

It’s worth mentioning that the terms optocouplers and opto-isolators are often used interchangeably; however, the usual convention is that optocouplers are devices that can isolate voltages of up to about 5000V while the opto-isolators are devices that can isolate voltages of over 5000V. Don’t be surprised if you see exceptions to this convention. If in doubt, study the data sheet. The image below shows the typical circuit diagram for an opto-isolator or opto-coupler with inputs on the left and outputs on the right.

Opto-isolator circuit symbol

For the moment, we want to focus on the different types of opto-isolators. When choosing an opto-isolator, the key parameters to consider are the isolation voltage, bandwidth, linearity, current transfer ratio, and power requirements.

Isolation voltage

The isolation voltage is the maximum rated voltage difference that can be present between the LED and the light sensor. This isolation voltage is governed by the construction of the opto-isolator device itself and factors outside the device. An internal breakdown will occur when the voltage at the light source element of the device arcs across to the light sensor element. Similarly, an external breakdown will occur when the voltage at the input pin of the device arcs across to an output pin. This is affected by the PCB design, that is how the traces for the inputs and outputs are routed and separated and the environmental conditions around the device. The voltage at which arcing will occur will depend on the temperature, humidity, separation distance, pressure, and airborne contaminants’ presence. Distance and humidity are the most significant factors. A typical off the shelf opto-isolator can withstand input-to-output voltages differences of up to 10 kV and voltage transients of around 25 kV/μs.

Bandwidth

Where an opto-isolator is used to decouple ground planes or voltage sensing inputs, the rate of change of the isolated signal is relatively unimportant. However, where the opto-isolator is used to decouple data links and communications lines, the device’s throughput becomes essential. Typical applications range from relatively slow speed serial data links such as I2C or SPI running at tens of Mbps through to high speed protocols running at Gbps. The more basic opto-isolator typically has a bandwidth of around 10 MHz (See below), but there are devices specifically designed for faster data rates. Bear in mind that the achievable data rate for any opto-isolator will depend on how the output is loaded and affected by temperature. Study the data sheet very carefully if you’re isolating fast data links.

Opto-isolator gain
The bandwidth can be seen in an opto-isolator's gain curve. The example shown here is for the HCPL-7840-000E from Broadcom.

It is worth mentioning that off-the-shelf passive network isolators are available for wired Ethernet networks that use electromagnetic induction to provide an electrically non-conducting barrier without the requirement for an external power supply. Implementing an opto-isolator circuit may not always be the most appropriate solution, but that decision will depend on your individual circumstances.

Linearity

As with any semiconductor device, the photodiode used in the opto-isolator will have an element of non-linearity in the relationship between the input and output, which can distort the signal being passed through the isolator. Ensuring the photodiode is biased and operated in its linear range, avoiding the cutoff or saturation regions, will reduce this effect to some extent. Any residual non-linearity will be particularly noticeable where the opto-isolators are used to decouple analog signals.

Specialist analog opto-isolators have been developed with minimal non-linearity. Typically, they use two photodiodes connected to an operational amplifier. One photodiode operates as usual, while the second device with identical non-linearity performance sits in the amplifier’s feedback loop to compensate by canceling out the non-linearities.

Current Transfer Ratio

The current transfer ratio (CTR) is the ratio between the LED and sensor currents, effectively gaining the device and reflecting its efficiency. An opto-isolator with a low CTR will require more current to drive the LED to create sufficient current at the phototransistor for a particular output load.

The CTR is not constant but is dependent on the input current coming into the component. The CTR will also vary with each individual component, its temperature, and the component’s age, so it’s crucial to select a device that delivers the required CTR at the maximum rated temperature and maximum operating life of the device that the opto-isolator will be used in. Manufacturing tolerances in components can lead to wide ranges of CTR within the same batch of components, so the design must work based on the minimum CTR stated in the data sheet. All these factors can make the selection of the optimum device tricky. If in doubt, add a healthy margin for error and simulate the circuit using worst-case component values to ensure the circuit will work correctly.

Power

The final factor to bear in mind is the power requirements of the opto-isolator itself and the management of heat generated by the component due to losses. Basic components can be relatively inefficient and generate significant thermal energy levels that must be appropriately handled, particularly as the performance of the opto-isolator itself will be adversely affected by heating effects. When designing the circuit layout, remember to keep the input traces to the opto-isolator suitably separated from all other traces, especially ground and power planes, to prevent transients from being capacitively or inductively coupled between traces.

Opto-isolator Construction

Opto-isolators typically use a near-infrared LED to convert an electrical input signal into an equivalent light signal. The light is contained within a closed optical channel, also referred to as a dielectric channel. A photo-sensing device at the end of the optical channel either directly generates an electrical signal from the received light, or it uses the received light to modulate the electric current that flows from an external power source. The photo-sensing device can be a photoresistor, photodiode, phototransistor, silicon-controlled rectifier (SCR), or triac. As photoresistors can be used both as a light source and a photo-sensing device, it is possible to form a bidirectional opto-isolator using two photoresistors, one at each end of the optical channel. Performance and efficiency issues limit the availability and application of bidirectional opto-isolators. An equivalent circuit can be implemented using two unidirectional opto-isolators in reversed configuration at the expense of requiring more discrete components with a much greater footprint.

Opto-isolator circuits
Four types of opto-isolator components (from left to right): Schmitt buffer, triac, phototransistor, and SCR. These devices can also be configured in multiple channels.

The physical layout of an opto-isolator depends primarily on the desired isolation voltage. Devices rated for less than a few kV typically have planar construction. The sensor die is covered with a sheet of glass or clear plastic, which is topped with the LED die. The absorption spectrum of the sensor will be matched to the output spectrum of the LED. The thickness of the optical channel determines the rated breakdown voltage of the device. Devices rated for higher breakdown voltages typically have silicone dome construction. The LED and sensor dies are placed on the opposite side of the package, separated by a gap formed by a transparent silicone dome. The dome is shaped to direct the maximum amount of light as possible from the LED to the sensor.

Application

Electronic equipment and signal and power transmission lines can be regularly subjected to voltage surges induced by lightning and electrostatic discharge, radio frequency interference, and pulses generated by load changes. As discussed in a previous article, remote lightning strikes can induce several kV surges into long communications and power lines. Opto-isolators can provide a solution to preventing voltage surges present at the inputs to a device from affecting the more sensitive components within that device. There are also applications where a device incorporates elements that employ high voltages as part of the design. The design may well require an interface between the circuit’s high voltage elements and the standard low voltage elements. Opto-isolators can also help keep the different elements safely separate in this instance.

Where opto-isolators are used to drive digital logic levels, the output configuration needs to be taken into account. If the output of the opto-isolators is required to swing from zero volts to the power rail to accommodate the load circuit, an opto-isolator with a Totem-Pole output configuration will be required. Otherwise, the more common Push-Pull configuration can be chosen.

The main feature of opto-isolators that differentiate them from equivalent isolating transformers is no energy flows across the device. They operate by modulating electrical energy supplied to the output to reflect the level of energy reaching the input. However, one significant advantage that opto-isolators have over isolating transformers is that they can transfer very low-frequency signals all the way down to DC levels. They are also simpler to implement into a circuit design as the input and output impedances are independent, requiring no additional components for impedance matching.

Types of Sensors in Opto-isolators

Photoresistors

Photoresistors are non-polar devices that can be used in both DC and AC circuits. They operate by changing their resistance in reverse proportion to the intensity of the received light energy. The operating range of the resistance can be from a few hundred Ohms up to an open circuit. Traditionally used in telephony and industrial automation, they have been superseded in the main apart from niche applications in musical instrument amplification.

Photodiodes

When light energy falls on a photodiode, a charge is generated proportional to the intensity of the received light energy. This small charge can be used to drive a high impedance load, and the photodiode is operating in a photovoltaic mode. When a photodiode is reverse-biased using an external voltage source, received light energy will increase the reverse current flowing through the diode, modulating the flow of energy from the external source. The energy flow rate is directly proportional to the received light energy intensity when operating in this photoconductive mode. By incorporating LED drivers and output amplifiers into the opto-isolators device, the photodiode operating in this photoconductive mode can be optimized to operate at relatively high speeds.

Phototransistors

Phototransistors are inherently slower than photodiodes and must be correctly biased and loaded to achieve speeds in the tens of kHz. However, their open collector output means that they have the advantage of being able to generate larger output currents and are more sensitive. They are more suited for use in DC circuits where the slower response time will have no impact. Using a Schottky clamp on the phototransistor’s open collector output can provide relatively good linearity in the device’s response.

The photodarlington is a variant of a phototransistor where a pair of transistors in the Darlington Pair configuration provides much higher levels of gain and sensitivity than a standard phototransistor at the cost of a slower response rate.

Photo-Silicon-Controlled rectifiers

Silicon-controlled rectifier (SCR) opto-isolators are a type of thyristor-based isolator designed for AC power control applications. Also known as photo-SCRs, they provide complete isolation of noise and voltage transients present on the AC power supply line. Performance limitations from only operating across the positive half of the mains AC cycle make their use less common than photo-triac devices.

Photo-Triac

Photo-triac (triode for alternating current) opto-isolators are, like photo-SCRs, optimized for use in solid-state relay applications to control AC’s mains powered loads. The triac opto-isolator can operate from a simple switched DC input to safely operate a high voltage AC supply. Unlike photo-SCRs, a triac opto-isolator can operate across the entire mains AC cycle with zero-crossing detection allowing the circuit to drive full power to the load with minimal inrush current when switching inductive loads.

Photo-MOSFET

Photo-MOSFET (metal–oxide–semiconductor field-effect transistor) relays are a less common type of opto-isolator designed for fast switching applications where high reliability and long life are required in environmentally challenging conditions. Capable of efficiently switching 1.5 kV and handling currents of up to 5 A with no contact bounce, these solid-state devices are utilized in the latest generation of battery management systems for solar power generation plants and electric vehicles.

Conclusion

When choosing an opto-isolator, don’t just go for whatever device fits your budget and is in stock at your favorite supplier. Opto-isolators come in a broad range of different types that are optimized for particular applications. Start the selection process by considering the key factors;

  • What is the highest voltage you need to protect against?
  • What is the bandwidth of the signal that you are looking to isolate?
  • Do you need to isolate DC or AC, or are you looking at isolating a high-speed data line?
  • How are you powering the output, and what load is it driving?
  • Knowing this and the characteristics of the input, what is the current transfer ratio you’ll need?
  • Then, how will you incorporate the opto-isolator(s) into your design, and what thermal management measures will you need to include?

The lesson here is that merely dropping in an opto-isolator device onto your board is not as straightforward as it may first appear. It needs to be considered part of the overall design process from day one to guarantee your circuit works correctly. Opto-isolators are great for decoupling DC and low-frequency signals from the rest of the circuit, but they require external power, and they generally have a poor high-frequency response. Transformer isolators are excellent at high frequencies but can’t handle DC signals. However, the calculations for handling the inductance that adds to the circuit and the requirement for impedance matching can make them unsuitable for some applications. Another consideration is that the opto-isolator chip will be significantly smaller than an equivalent transformer isolator and far simpler to fit onto a circuit board. And finally, don’t forget the power of simulation tools to help ensure you make the right choices.

The design tools in Altium Designer® contain everything you need to keep up with new technology. Start your free trial of Altium Designer + Altium 365 today.

About Author

About Author

Mark Harris is an engineer's engineer, with over 12 years of diverse experience within the electronics industry, varying from aerospace and defense contracts to small product startups, hobbies and everything in between. Before moving to the United Kingdom, Mark was employed by one of the largest research organizations in Canada; every day brought a different project or challenge involving electronics, mechanics, and software. He also publishes the most extensive open source database library of components for Altium Designer called the Celestial Database Library. Mark has an affinity for open-source hardware and software and the innovative problem-solving required for the day-to-day challenges such projects offer. Electronics are passion; watching a product go from an idea to reality and start interacting with the world is a never-ending source of enjoyment. 

You can contact Mark directly at: mark@originalcircuit.com

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