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17 May 2011

Precision Current Measurement

Building the Perfect Beast Current Meter

In order to measure resistance (and, for that matter, inductance and capacitance) we need to measure both the voltage across the device, and the current through it. The voltage part is easy, we drive the device at a known voltage derived from a precision source. Measuring current is a little trickier, especially when you are trying to do it with an AC source, as you must for an inductance, capacitance or LCR meter.

The traditional way of measuring current is to introduce a small resistance into the circuit, and measure the voltage across it. Clearly, this voltage offset (sometimes known as burden voltage) is going to change the effective drive voltage, and will be a particularly large offset when the device under test (DUT) is comparatively low resistance.

What we need to do is somehow re-inject this voltage drop back into the circuit, and - hey presto - no more burden voltage to distort readings. We could do this by feeding back the voltage from the current sensor and offsetting the drive level, but there is a much simpler way.

Those of you who have studied electronics at school, college or university may remember the inverting configuration of the op-amp. Feedback is applied to the inverting (-) input, so that it is driven to the same potential as the non-inverting (+) input. This makes it appear that there is a zero-resistance short circuit between the inputs, but it is a very controlled one.

Another name for the inverting input in this configuration is the “virtual ground”, but in practise it can be driven to any level within the op-amp’s spec (largely limited by the power supply rails). This can be very useful, as we can effectively offset the ground potential by applying a voltage to the non-inverting input instead of grounding it.

If we introduce a resistor into the circuit as above, the op-amp will continue to do whatever it takes to make sure both inputs are at the same potential. Thus creating a potential difference across the resistor which is proportional to the current flowing through it. Handily, the DUT still thinks it has a near-zero impedance path to ground. Simply put:

Vout = -Iin * Rfb

Problems and Gotchas

Clearly, the op-amp output has to be able to source and sink sufficient current, and the feedback resistor must be chosen so that the output voltage does not approach the supply rail voltages. Without a custom output drive stage, current is going to be limited to 100mA or so.

Any system with negative feedback has the potential to oscillate, especially if the source is capacitive or inductive and so capable of inducing a phase change. The solution is to add capacitance in parallel with the feedback resistor, but this clearly limits the response bandwidth. Not a problem if the current being measured is DC, but potentially problematic in an AC system such as the LCR meter.

Another less obvious problem is input bias current (Ib). Any op-amp requires a small amount of current to be present at the inputs before the input stage transistors detect a signal. This is normally negligible, in the order of nA or even pA, but this may be an issue in certain ultra-sensitive current meter applications and should be borne in mind. Similarly, op-amp inputs have an offset voltage (Vos) that may be problematic under extreme circumstances.

Transimpedance / Transconductance Amplifier - What's the Difference?

I can never remember which is which, so I had to look it up! Apologies if I get these wrong elsewhere!  

  • A transimpedance amplifier converts an input current to an output voltage.
  • A transconductance amplifier converts an input voltage to an output current.


  1. Wouldn't a balancing bridge be a better fit for measurements with > 1 MHz or are OpAmps nowadays so much better that this doesn't matter?
    Do you plan a DC bias voltage or current?

  2. I suspect that for ultimate lab precision, a balanced bridge may be better. It would probably take some amazing mechanical engineering and very precise (and expensive) components to do so though. The AD5933 design is a bit of an adventure for me, as I don't know of anyone else who has used it. I expect there to be several unforeseen pitfalls yet to appear. The TX/drive amplifier will have a DAC input to trim the bias to 0 under normal conditions, or to allow the controller to apply a modest (+/-1V max) offset.