What are Optically Isolated Relays?

Popularly, relays are known to be electromechanical devices. However, engineers today have access to solid-state relays that operate without any electromagnetic or moving parts. Where reliability and performance is paramount, engineers prefer to use solid-state relays to their electromagnetic versions. However, solid-state relays are more expensive.

While traditional relays have several mechanical failure modes associated with moving parts, solid-state relays offer several advantages in performance and design. These include low power consumption, low leakage current, stable on-resistance, high reliability, extremely long life, small size, fast switching speeds, high vibration and shock resistance, and no switching noise from contact bounce.

Another important feature of solid-state relays is they are optically isolated. That means the relays use an LED or light emitting diode on their input side, MOSFETs or metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors on their output side, and an array of photo sensors isolating the two.

The design and packaging affect the relay’s performance crucially. Translucent resin molds the electronic and optical components – the LED, photo array, and the MOSFETs – allowing light to pass through, while applying a dielectric barrier between the input and the output.

That means you only need to drive a switchable voltage directly to the input pin of the solid-state relay through a resistor to limit the current through the LED and control the relay. The value of the resistor has to be selected carefully, so the LED can reach its full intensity without being overdriven.

Optically isolated relays are increasingly used in sophisticated test and measurement systems. However, these systems require solid state relays to have characteristics such as low capacitance, low on-resistance, physical isolation, and high linearity. As data acquisition devices become faster and more precise, the above characteristics play an increasingly important role.

Low capacitance results in improved switching times and better isolation characteristics when switching high-frequency load signals. You need low on-resistance for reducing power dissipation when switching high currents. This also improves switching speeds improving the precision of measurement. Temperature range of the relay is an important factor when considering on-resistance values, as rising temperatures drive up the on-resistance.

To enhance precision by minimizing noise, physical isolation between the input and the output of a relay plays an important part. Expect isolation voltages as high as 5 KV AC for optically isolated relays as these offer a truly physical separation between their input and the output. Solid-state relays also offer high linearity leading to accurate measurements.

Industrial applications also benefit from using optically isolated relays, although the requirements here are different. For instance, an industrial plant using several relays, the low power consumption of optically isolated relays offers substantial savings. Where an electromagnetic relay requires 50-100 mA to actuate, a typical optically isolated relay requires only 5 mA.

Latching-type models of solid state relays have built-in protective circuits that safeguard power supplies, motors, and other industrial devices susceptible to disturbances from the output side. Such disturbances come from voltage peaks or overcurrent conditions arising from short circuits or improper use. Their reliability and small form factor saves space, while speeding up development.