differential amplifier 6

An op-amp with no feedback is already a differential amplifier, amplifying the voltage difference between the two inputs. However, its gain cannot be controlled, and it is generally too high to be of any practical use. So far, our application of negative feedback to op-amps has resulting in the practical loss of one of the inputs, the resulting amplifier only good for amplifying a single voltage signal input. With a little ingenuity, however, we can construct an op-amp circuit maintaining both voltage inputs, yet with a controlled gain set by external resistors.

If all the resistor values are equal, this amplifier will have a differential voltage gain of 1. The analysis of this circuit is essentially the same as that of an inverting amplifier, except that the noninverting input (+) of the op-amp is at a voltage equal to a fraction of V2, rather than being connected directly to ground. As would stand to reason, V2 functions as the noninverting input and V1 functions as the inverting input of the final amplifier circuit. Therefore:

If we wanted to provide a differential gain of anything other than 1, we would have to adjust the resistances in both upper and lower voltage dividers, necessitating multiple resistor changes and balancing between the two dividers for symmetrical operation. This is not always practical, for obvious reasons.

Another limitation of this amplifier design is the fact that its input impedances are rather low compared to that of some other op-amp configurations, most notably the noninverting (single-ended input) amplifier. Each input voltage source has to drive current through a resistance, which constitutes far less impedance than the bare input of an op-amp alone. The solution to this problem, fortunately, is quite simple. All we need to do is “buffer” each input voltage signal through a voltage follower like this:

Now the V1 and V2 input lines are connected straight to the inputs of two voltage-follower op-amps, giving very high impedance. The two op-amps on the left now handle the driving of current through the resistors instead of letting the input voltage sources (whatever they may be) do it. The increased complexity to our circuit is minimal for a substantial benefit.

The instrumentation amplifier

As suggested before, it is beneficial to be able to adjust the gain of the amplifier circuit without having to change more than one resistor value, as is necessary with the previous design of differential amplifier. The so-called instrumentation builds on the last version of differential amplifier to give us that capability:

This intimidating circuit is constructed from a buffered differential amplifier stage with three new resistors linking the two buffer circuits together. Consider all resistors to be of equal value except for Rgain. The negative feedback of the upper-left op-amp causes the voltage at point 1 (top of Rgain) to be equal to V1. Likewise, the voltage at point 2 (bottom of Rgain) is held to a value equal to V2. This establishes a voltage drop across Rgain equal to the voltage difference between V1 and V2. That voltage drop causes a current through Rgain, and since the feedback loops of the two input op-amps draw no current, that same amount of current through Rgain must be going through the two “R” resistors above and elow it. This produces a voltage drop between points 3 and 4 equal to:

The regular differential amplifier on the right-hand side of the circuit then takes this voltage drop between points 3 and 4, and amplifies it by a gain of 1 (assuming again that all “R” resistors are of equal value). Though this looks like a cumbersome way to build a differential amplifier, it has the distinct advantages of possessing extremely high input impedances on the V1 and V2 inputs (because they connect straight into the noninverting inputs of their respective op-amps), and adjustable gain that can be set by a single resistor. Manipulating the above formula a bit, we have a general expression for overall voltage gain in the instrumentation amplifier:

Though it may not be obvious by looking at the schematic, we can change the differential gain of the instrumentation amplifier simply by changing the value of one resistor: Rgain. Yes, we could still change the overall gain by changing the values of some of the other resistors, but this would necessitate balanced resistor value changes for the circuit to remain symmetrical. Please note that the lowest gain possible with the above circuit is obtained with Rgain completely open (infinite resistance), and that gain value is 1.

An instrumentation amplifier is a differential op-amp circuit providing high input impedances with ease of gain adjustment through the variation of a single resistor.

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