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transmission line 2


Finite-length transmission lines

A transmission line of infinite length is an interesting abstraction, but physically impossible. All transmission lines have some finite length, and as such do not behave precisely the same as an infinite line. If that piece of 50 Ω “RG-58/U” cable I measured with an ohmmeter years ago had been infinitely long, I actually would have been able to measure 50 Ω worth of resistance between the inner and outer conductors. But it was not infinite in length, and so it measured as “open” (infinite resistance).

Nonetheless, the characteristic impedance rating of a transmission line is important even when dealing with limited lengths. An older term for characteristic impedance, which I like for its descriptive value, is surge impedance. If a transient voltage (a “surge”) is applied to the end of a transmission line, the line will draw a current proportional to the surge voltage magnitude divided by the line’s surge impedance (I=E/Z). This simple, Ohm’s Law relationship between current and voltage will hold true for a limited period of time, but not indefinitely.

If the end of a transmission line is open-circuited — that is, left unconnected — the current “wave” propagating down the line’s length will have to stop at the end, since electrons cannot flow where there is no continuing path. This abrupt cessation of current at the line’s end causes a “pile-up” to occur along the length of the transmission line, as the electrons successively find no place to go. Imagine a train traveling down the track with slack between the rail car couplings: if the lead car suddenly crashes into an immovable barricade, it will come to a stop, causing the one behind it to come to a stop as soon as the first coupling slack is taken up, which causes the next rail car to stop as soon as the next coupling’s slack is taken up, and so on until the last rail car stops. The train does not come to a halt together, but rather in sequence from first car to last:


Reflected wave.

A signal propagating from the source-end of a transmission line to the load-end is called an incident wave. The propagation of a signal from load-end to source-end (such as what happened in this example with current encountering the end of an open-circuited transmission line) is called a reflected wave.

When this electron “pile-up” propagates back to the battery, current at th battery ceases, and the line acts as a simple open circuit. All this happens very quickly for transmission lines of reasonable length, and so an ohmmeter measurement of the line never reveals the brief time period where the line actually behaves as a resistor. For a mile-long cable with a velocity factor of 0.66 (signal propagation velocity is 66% of light speed, or 122,760 miles per second), it takes only 1/122,760 of a second (8.146 microseconds) for a signal to travel from one end to the other. For the current signal to reach the line’s end and “reflect” back to the source, the round-trip time is twice this figure, or 16.292 µs.

High-speed measurement instruments are able to detect this transit time from source to line-end and back to source again, and may be used for the purpose of determining a cable’s length. This technique may also be used for determining the presence and location of a break in one or both of the cable’s conductors, since a current will “reflect” off the wire break just as it will off the end of an open-circuited cable. Instruments designed for such purposes are called time-domain reflectometers (TDRs). The basic principle is identical to that of sonar range-finding: generating a sound pulse and measuring the time it takes for the echo to return.

A similar phenomenon takes place if the end of a transmission line is short-circuited: when the voltage wave-front reaches the end of the line, it is reflected back to the source, because voltage cannot exist between two electrically common points. When this reflected wave reaches the source, the source sees the entire transmission line as a short-circuit. Again, this happens as quickly as the signal can propagate round-trip down and up the transmission line at whatever velocity allowed by the dielectric material between the line’s conductors.

A simple experiment illustrates the phenomenon of wave reflection in transmission lines. Take a length of rope by one end and “whip” it with a rapid up-and-down motion of the wrist. A wave may be seen traveling down the rope’s length until it dissipates entirely due to friction:


Lossy transmission line.

This is analogous to a long transmission line with internal loss: the signal steadily grows weaker as it propagates down the line’s length, never reflecting back to the source. However, if the far end of the rope is secured to a solid object at a point prior to the incident wave’s total dissipation, a second wave will be reflected back to your hand: (Figure


Reflected wave.

Usually, the purpose of a transmission line is to convey electrical energy from one point to another. Even if the signals are intended for information only, and not to power some significant load device, the ideal situation would be for all of the original signal energy to travel from the source to the load, and then be completely absorbed or dissipated by the load for maximum signal-to-noise ratio. Thus, “loss” along the length of a transmission line is undesirable, as are reflected waves, since reflected energy is energy not delivered to the end device.

Reflections may be eliminated from the transmission line if the load’s impedance exactly equals the characteristic (“surge”) impedance of the line. For example, a 50 Ω coaxial cable that is either open-circuited or short-circuited will reflect all of the incident energy back to the source. However, if a 50 Ω resistor is connected at the end of the cable, there will be no reflected energy, all signal energy being dissipated by the resistor.

This makes perfect sense if we return to our hypothetical, infinite-length transmission line example. A transmission line of 50 Ω characteristic impedance and infinite length behaves exactly like a 50 Ω resistance as measured from one end. (Figure


If we cut thi line to some finite length, it will behave as a 50 Ω resistor to a constant source of DC voltage for a brief time, but then behave like an open- or a short-circuit, depending on what condition we leave the cut end of the line: open (Figure )


or shorted. (Figure )

However, if we terminate the line with a 50 Ω resistor, the line will once again behave as a 50 Ω resistor, indefinitely: the same as if it were of infinite length again: (Figure


Infinite transmission line looks like resistor.


One mile transmission.


Shorted transmission line.


Line terminated in characteristic impedance.

In essence, a terminating resistor matching the natural impedance of the transmission line makes the line “appear” infinitely long from the perspective of the source, because a resistor has the ability to eternally dissipate energy in the same way a transmission line of infinite length is able to eternally absorb energy.

Reflected waves will also manifest if the terminating resistance isn’t precisely equal to the characteristic impedance of the transmission line, not just if the line is left unconnected (open) or jumpered (shorted). Though the energy reflection will not be total with a terminating impedance of slight mismatch, it will be partial. This happens whether or not the terminating resistance is greater or less than the line’s characteristic impedance.

Re-reflections of a reflected wave may also occur at the source end of a transmission line, if the source’s internal impedance (Thevenin equivalent impedance) is not exactly equal to the line’s characteristic impedance. A reflected wave returning back to the source will be dissipated entirely if the source impedance matches the line’s, but will be reflected back toward the line end like another incident wave, at least partially, if the source impedance does not match the line. This type of reflection may be particularly troublesome, as it makes it appear that the source has transmitted another pulse.

Long and short transmission lines

In DC and low-frequency AC circuits, the characteristic impedance of parallel wires is usually ignored. This includes the use of coaxialcables in instrument circuits, often employed to protect weak voltage signals from being corrupted by induced “noise” caused by stray electric and magnetic fields. This is due to the relatively short timespans in which reflections take place in the line, as compared to the period of the waveforms or pulses of the significant signals in the circuit. As we saw in the last section, if a transmission line is connected to a DC voltage source, it will behave as a resistor equal in value to the line’s characteristic impedance only for as long as it takes the incident pulse to reach the end of the line and return as a reflected pulse, back to the source. After that time (a brief 16.292 µs for the mile-long coaxial cable of the last example), the source “sees” only the terminating impedance, whatever that may be.

If the circuit in question handles low-frequency AC power, such short time delays introduced by a transmission line between when the AC source outputs a voltage peak and when the source “sees” that peak loaded by the terminating impedance (round-trip time for the incident wave to reach the line’s end and reflect back to the source) are of little consequence. Even though we know that signal magnitudes along the line’s length are not equal at any given time due to signal propagation at (nearly) the speed of light, the actual phase difference between start-of-line and end-of-line signals is negligible, because line-length propagations occur within a very small fraction of the AC waveform’s period. For all practical purposes, we can say that voltage along all respective points on a low-frequency, two-conductor line are equal and in-phase with each other at any given point in time.

In these cases, we can say that the transmission lines in question are electrically short, because their propagation effects are much quicker than the periods of the conducted signals. By contrast, an electrically long line is one where the propagation time is a large fraction or even a multiple of the signal period. A “long” line is generally considered to be one where the source’s signal waveform completes at least a quarter-cycle (90o of “rotation”) before the incident signal reaches line’s end. Up until this chapter in the Lessons In Electric Circuits book series, all connecting lines were assumed to be electrically short.

To put this into perspective, we need to express the distance traveled by a voltage or current signal along a transmission line in relation to its source frequency. An AC waveform with a frequency of 60 Hz completes one cycle in 16.66 ms. At light speed (186,000 m/s), this equates to a distance of 3100 miles that a voltage or current signal will propagate in that time. If the velocity factor of the transmission line is less than 1, the propagation velocity will be less than 186,000 miles per second, and the distance less by the same factor. But even if we used the coaxial cable’s velocity factor from the last example (0.66), the distance is still a very long 2046 miles! Whatever distance we calculate for a given frequency is called the wavelength of the signal.

A simple formula for calculating wavelength is as follows:

The lower-case Greek letter “lambda” (λ) represents wavelength, in whatever unit of length used in the velocity figure (if miles per second, then wavelength in miles; if meters per second, then wavelength in meters). Velocity of propagation is usually the speed of light when calculating signal wavelength in open air or in a vacuum, but will be less if the transmission line has a velocity factor less than 1.

If a “long” line is considered to be one at least 1/4 wavelength in length, you can see why all connecting lines in the circuits discussed thusfar have been assumed “short.” For a 60 Hz AC power system, power lines would have to exceed 775 miles in length before he effects of propagation time became significant. Cables connecting an audio amplifier to speakers would have to be over 4.65 miles in length before line reflections would significantly impact a 10 kHz audio signal!

When dealing with radio-frequency systems, though, transmission line length is far from trivial. Consider a 100 MHz radio signal: its wavelength is a mere 9.8202 feet, even at the full propagation velocity of light (186,000 m/s). A transmission line carrying this signal would not have to be more than about 2-1/2 feet in length to be considered “long!” With a cable velocity factor of 0.66, this critical length shrinks to 1.62 feet.

When an electrical source is connected to a load via a “short” transmission line, the load’s impedance dominates the circuit. This is to say, when the line is short, its own characteristic impedance is of little consequence to the circuit’s behavior. We see this when testing a coaxial cable with an ohmmeter: the cable reads “open” from center conductor to outer conductor if the cable end is left unterminated. Though the line acts as a resistor for a very brief period of time after the meter is connected (about 50 Ω for an RG-58/U cable), it immediately thereafter behaves as a simple “open circuit:” the impedance of the line’s open end. Since the combined response time of an ohmmeter and the human being using it greatly exceeds the round-trip propagation time up and down the cable, it is “electrically short” for this application, and we only register the terminating (load) impedance. It is the extreme speed of the propagated signal that makes us unable to detect the cable’s 50 Ω transient impedance with an ohmmeter.

If we use a coaxial cable to conduct a DC voltage or current to a load, and no component in the circuit is capable of measuring or responding quickly enough to “notice” a reflected wave, the cable is considered “electrically short” and its impedance is irrelevant to circuit function. Note how the electrical “shortness” of a cable is relative to the application: in a DC circuit where voltage and current values change slowly, nearly any physical length of cable would be considered “short” from the standpoint of characteristic impedance and reflected waves. Taking the same length of cable, though, and using it to conduct a high-frequency AC signal could result in a vastly different assessment of that cable’s “shortness!”

When a source is connected to a load via a “long” transmission line, the line’s own characteristic impedance dominates over load impedance in determining circuit behavior. In other words, an electrically “long” line acts as the principal component in the circuit, its own characteristics overshadowing the load’s. With a source connected to one end of the cable and a load to the other, current drawn from the source is a function primarily of the line and not the load. This is increasingly true the longer the transmission line is. Consider our hypothetical 50 Ω cable of infinite length, surely the ultimate example of a “long” transmission line: no matter what kind of load we connect to one end of this line, the source (connected to the other end) will only see 50 Ω of impedance, because the line’s infinite length prevents the signal from ever reaching the end where the load is connected. In this scenario, line impedance exclusively defines circuit behavior, rendering the load completely irrelevant.

The most effective way to minimize the impact of transmission line length on circuit behavior is to match the line’s characteristic impedance to the load impedance. If the load impedance is equal to the line impedance, then any signal source connected to the other end of the line will “see” the exact same impedance, and will have the exact same amount of current drawn from it, regardless of line length. Inthis condition of perfect impedance matching, line length only affects the amount of time delay from signal departure at the source to signal arrival at the load. However, perfect matching of line and load impedances is not always practical or possible.

The next section discusses the effects of “long” transmission lines, especially when line length happens to match specific fractions or multiples of signal wavelength.

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