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Simple RF Current Transformer for EMC / EMI Investigation

This post contains some background info related to the video I posted on YouTube on how to make a simple RF current transformer, a great tool for debugging EMC / EMI issues such as radiated emissions from cables, or tracing conducted RF immunity noise paths.

RF current transformers (or probes) are commercially available products from places like Fischer CC or Solar Electronics and they work really well, have specified bandwidth and power handling characteristics, built in shielding, robust case, etc.

They also cost a few hundred £$€ each which, if you are on a budget like most people, represents a significant investment for a individual or small laboratory. However, this one can be built very cheaply; most labs will have a development kit with some clip on ferrite cores, if not the core I used only costs £5 from RS.

DIY Current Probe

I’m a big fan of making my own test adaptors and equipment as its a great way to really understand how things work and the compromises in any design. As such I decided to share how I go about making this kind of really useful tool.

It’s primary use is for A-B comparison work; measuring the current, performing a modification and then measuring the current to see the improvement.

It is to be stressed that my version is a crude but effective piece of equipment and does not replace a well designed commercial product. There’s a time and a place to invest in quality equipment and one should use engineering judgement on when that is. For instance, measuring the RF current accurately is definitely a job for a properly designed and characterised device.

If you want to explore RF current transformers in more detail then there is plenty of info on Google, but these links are useful places to start.

Some of the design compromises involved in this low cost approach include:

Core Losses / Insertion Loss

The ferrite material in these cores is specifically designed to be lossy at the frequencies of interest, which will result in a lower reading than a higher bandwidth core and a reduction in the amount of noise on the cable downstream from the noise source. This can in some cases mask the effect you are trying to measure. The commercially available products use low loss, high bandwidth ferrite cores.

A high insertion loss also makes these parts more unsuitable for injecting noise into circuits for immunity testing. they can be calibrated for this task using a simple test setup (to be covered later)

Secondary Turns

Number of secondary turns controls sensitivity but the more you add, the inter-winding capacitance increases, decreasing the bandwidth of the tool. I generally use 5 or 6 turns to start with but I do have a 20 turn part made with micro coax on a solid core which also helps to deal with…

Capacitive pickup

From the cable under test to the secondary winding. Normally a split shield (so that it doesn’t appear as a shorted turn) is built in to commercial products. Guess what, that’s easy to do on this with a spot of copper tape or foil.

Not as Robust

Although a well designed product, the plastic hinges and clips on the cores are not designed for repeated opening and closing. The Wurth Elektronik system of a special key to open and close the core is much more robust at the expense of having to keep a few keys to hand for when they inevitably go missing. However these parts are so cheap and quick to make that a broken clip on core is no real obstacle.

Future Videos

I’ll be following this video with some hints and tips on how to use these devices effectively for finding radiated emissions problems and for looking at conducted RF immunity issues. Stay tuned.

Video and Construction Errata

The sharp eyed of you will have spotted that I originally assembled the BNC connector on the core so that it covered the key-way to open the clamp. I rectified this but didn’t film the change.

Also, you can wrap the wire round the core without removing it from the housing but that means you don’t have a nice flat surface to affix the BNC connector to. It does make it easier to close the clamp however so make your choice.

conducted rf immunity calibration impedance and measurement voltages

When is a Test Level Not a Test Level?

Answer: When you don’t read the standard properly!

I was verifying my EN 61000-4-6 conducted RF immunity test setup after the construction of some new test adaptors and acquisition of some new equipment when came across something that left me scratching my head. I figured it out eventually and updated my calibration procedure with a note but it did have me puzzled for an hour!

Like most conducted immunity signal generators, the one I use combines a signal generator and modulator with a power amplifier and some front panel controls/readouts for performing the basic functions. It also has an RF Input for calibrating Coupling/Decoupling Networks (CDNs) which measures the voltage at the 150/50 ohm calibration adaptor and sets the output voltage of the generator to the correct level. My generator has a LED bargraph display showing the level which provides a reassuring visual confirmation that everything is OK.

 

Confused by Conducted, Stumped by the Scope

Having calibrated my new CDN at 3V, since I had a scope within reach, I decided to run the test but monitor the output of the calibration adaptor with the scope to make sure it was all working OK.

I did not see the expected 3V level, instead the RMS measurement on the scope was 0.5V and the pk-pk was just over 1.5V. I checked my 50 ohm thru termination on the scope input and even swapped it for a different one. My second scope also read the same voltage so it clearly wasn’t the scope. Puzzling.

I swapped the CDN for one that had been previously calibrated CDN and the lower than expected output voltage persists. Try turning up the generator voltage to 10V and I can’t even achieve 3V on the scope. Yet when I swap the connection from the scope to the RF generator it proclaims that yes, that is indeed the level that the generator says it is outputting.

Putting a BNC T-piece in series and monitoring the voltage with the RF input terminating the signal still achieves the same result. Is the generator RF input broken and reading the wrong voltage?

I checked the operating manual of the generator – the cal setup I’ve been using for years is correct. Then I carefully read the standard, focusing on the section that deals with calibration of the test adaptors. All became clear…

 

Open Circuit Voltage vs Loaded Voltage

EN 61000-4-6 specifies the test levels in terms of Uo, open circuit voltage. However the generator level setting part of the calibration is based on a measurement of Umr, the measured output voltage. This is a slightly simplified version of Figure 9 from the 2014 version of the standard showing the impedances of each part of the system.

conducted rf immunity cdn calibration impedances

Tucked away at the bottom of the calibration section is the formula that links the two together.

Uo = Umr / 6

Which yields the following values that the input of the generator or the scope should be looking to measure:

Test LevelUo (Vrms)Umr (Vrms)
110.167
230.5
3101.67

For the measurement, the impedance of the decoupling part of the CDN is big enough that the termination of the AE port is not significant to the measurement, making most of the current flow through the EUT port network. You should be able to open or short the 150 ohm AE port termination and not see the measured output voltage change significantly.

By simplifying the above image and a bit of Ohms law you can clearly see that Umr is 1/6 of Uo.

conducted rf immunity calibration impedance and measurement voltages

Of course these are RMS voltages. If your scope that you are measuring with doesn’t have an RMS function then you’ll probably be measuring the peak to peak voltages. The conversion factor is:

Vpk-pk = Vrms x 2 x sqrt(2)

Which when added to the above table makes life a bit easier.

Test LevelUo (Vrms)Umr (Vrms)Umr (Vpk-pk)
110.1670.467
230.51.4
3101.674.67

 

Panic Over

Armed with this new knowledge I revisited my calibrations to find that yes, everything was measuring correctly. The RF generator, being designed specifically for conducted RF immunity testing, takes care of the divide by 6 in it’s calculations.

As an ex-colleague was often heard to remark “every day is a school day” and today’s lesson was a good one. I hope this article saves you a bit of head scratching next time you are verifying your conducted RF immunity test setup.