One of the most commonly asked applications questions is: “What happens if external voltages are applied to an analog integrated circuit with the supplies turned off?” This question describes situations that can take on many different forms: from lightning strikes on cables which propagate very high transient voltages into signal conditioning circuits, to walking across a carpet and then touching a printed circuit board full of sensitive precision circuits. Regardless of the situation, the general issue is the effect of overvoltage stress (and, in some cases, abuse) on analog integrated circuits. The discussion which follows will be limited in general to operational amplifiers, because it is these devices that most often interface to the outside world. The principles developed here can and should be applied to all analog integrated circuits which are required to condition or digitize analog waveforms. These devices include (but are not limited to) instrumentation amplifiers, analog comparators, sample-and-hold amplifiers, analog switches and multiplexers, and analog-to-digital converters.

Amplifier Input Stage Overvoltage In real world signal conditioning, sensors are often used in hostile environments where faults can and do occur. When these faults take place, signal conditioning circuitry can be exposed to large voltages which exceed the power supplies. The likelihood for damage is quite high, even though the components’ power supplies may be turned on. Published specifications for operational amplifier absolute maximum ratings state that applied input signal levels should never exceed the power supplies by more than 0.3 V or, in some devices, 0.7 V. Exceeding these levels exposes amplifier input stages to potentially destructive fault currents which flow through internal metal traces and parasitic P-N junctions to the supplies. Without some type of current limiting, unprotected input differential pairs (BJTs or FETs) can be destroyed in a matter of microseconds. There are, however, some devices with built-in circuitry that can provide protection beyond the supply voltages, but in general, absolute maximum ratings must still be observed. Although more recent vintage operational amplifiers designed for single-supply or railto- rail operation are now including information with regard to input stage overvoltage effects, there are very many amplifiers available today without such information provided by the manufacturer. In those cases, the circuit designer using these components must ascertain the input stage current-voltage characteristic of the device in question before

steps can be taken to protect it. All amplifiers will conduct current to the positive/negative supply, provided the applied input voltage exceeds some internal threshold. This threshold is device dependent, and can range from 0.7 V to 30 V, depending on the internal construction of the input stage.

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