Tag Archives: Optocouplers

Gate-Drive and Isolation Transformers

Controlling the current flow between the drain and the source of a MOSFET requires the application of a drive voltage to the gate of the MOSFET. Switching power supplies operate the MOSFET as a current switch by applying a pulsed voltage drive to the gate for turning the drain-source current on and off. Delivering the controlling pulse requires a gate drive transformer to provide isolation between the controlling drive circuit and the MOSFET. Companies like Coilcraft offer off-the-shelf gate drive transformers for the purpose.

Gate drive circuits must provide an isolated or floating bias supply for maintaining the necessary turn-on bias when the MOSFET source rises to the input voltage. While driving the MOSFET gate, not only does the gate drive transformer help in isolating the controlling gate drive circuit from the switch node, it may also scale the output voltage via a suitable turns-ratio between its primary and secondary.

Some applications use optocouplers or digital isolators for driving the MOSFET directly. However, the use of a gate drive transformer is preferable, as it can provide a higher voltage requirement, much lower turn-on and turn-off delay times, and it can scale voltages by the ratio of its turns. These advantages make the simple gate driver transformer the best-performing solution for high-frequency and high-voltage applications that require maintaining accurate and fast signal timing.

Typical low-power applications use a simple single-output, transformer-coupled, high-side gate driver circuit. Additional components like capacitors, resistors, and diodes may be necessary depending on the duty cycle and other circuit conditions. These include preventing the development of a DC voltage across the transformer, as this may cause it to saturate. The additional components also help in the coupling capacitance and magnetizing inductance from resonating with specific duty cycle ratios. For single-ended circuits, the highest duty cycle is preferably 0.5.

Higher power applications may require half-bridge and full-bridge configurations coupled with transformers. Double-ended or DC-coupled bridge configurations may use a theoretical maximum duty cycle of 1.0. Designers use isolation transformers for isolation and voltage scaling in power supply applications. These serve three main purposes.

First, the transformer helps to connect circuits with grounds at different potentials—this prevents ground loop formation. Second, the transformer provides galvanic isolation, thereby preventing any flow of direct current. Lastly, the transformer provides voltage transformation—stepping up or stepping down from one voltage to another.

Isolation transformers may be available as signal transformers, power-supply transformers, communication transformers, data-line transformers, and many others. These are versatile and aptly suited for several industrial and commercial data communications and power supply applications.

Using off-the-shelf gate drive and isolation transformers can simplify the design of the gate drive circuit and significantly reduce the design cycle time. Coilcraft transformers typically use high-permeability ferrite cores for maximizing the inductance and minimizing the magnetizing current.

The designer can determine the required transformer size by the volt-time product of the application. This forms the first selection criterion for a gate drive transformer, as the designer can select the appropriate volt-time or V-µsec rating from the datasheet of the transformer. The rating must be equal to or greater than the highest applicable voltage-time product 

Digital Isolators vs Optocouplers

Industrial equipment may need to operate in a region of strong electromagnetic fields. There can be a sudden surge in the voltage applied to the equipment, which may be hazardous to the user and the gear. It is crucial that you incorporate a reliable isolation system to take of these issues.

Until very recently, the optocoupler was the only practical choice in providing safety isolation for manufacturers of medical and industrial isolated systems. The arrival of digital isolator has however, changed the situation greatly.

Digital isolators offer several advantages over optocouplers. They are more reliable, cheaper and have greater power efficiency compared to the optocouplers.

It is important that you understand the three vital aspects of an isolation system. These are the insulation material, the structure and the method of transfer of data.

Insulation Material

Typical insulation materials are silicon dioxide wafers and thin film of polymers. Optocouplers use polymer films. Digital isolators make use of a particular form of polymer called polyimide. This material serves to increase the efficiency of isolation systems.

Silicon Dioxide is not a very suitable material as an isolator. While you may increase the thickness of polyimide to increase the insulation, you cannot adopt the same method for silicon dioxide. Wafers thicker than 15 micrometers may crack during processing.


Digital isolators use either transformers or capacitors to transfer data across the isolation barrier. A transformer system has two coils placed side by side. Current flowing through a coil (called the primary coil) gives rise to a magnetic field in the space surrounding the coil. This induces a current to flow in the other coil (called the secondary coil).

A capacitor consists of two metal plates with the space between the plates filled with a non-conductor.

Optocouplers use light emitting diodes (LED) for data transmission.

Transfer of Data

The LED in an optocoupler turns on for logic high state and turns off for logic low state. The device consumes a significant amount of power when the LED is on. Digital isolators do away with this undesirable aspect. The sophisticated circuitry in the system encodes and decodes data at a rapid pace so that the transmission of data involves less power consumption.

A digital isolator using a transformer for data transmission transfers the data from the primary coil to the secondary coil during the pulses of current driving the transformer.

A digital isolator may use radio frequency signals as well, in a fashion similar to the way an optocoupler uses light from an LED. However, since a logic high state causes a continuous transmission of radio frequency signals, this method uses more power.

Digital isolators with capacitors have an advantage in that they consume lower currents for creating coupling electric fields for data transmission.

Ensuring the Correct Combination

It is important to use the right insulating material and the apt method for data transfer depending upon the application.

Since polymers provide more than adequate insulation, they are suitable in most applications. Polyimide insulation is particularly suitable for equipment used in healthcare and heavy industries.

Concerning data transfer, capacitor isolation is adequate for situations requiring just functional and not safety isolation. Isolation systems making use of transformers will serve the purpose of safety as well as functional isolation.