Coaxial Feeder / RF Coax Cable Tutorial

- coax cable or RF coaxial feeder is a form of RF feeder - it offers a relativly low loss, while remaining rugged and flexible.

The most common type of antenna feeder used today is undoubtedly coaxial feeder or coax cable. Coax cable, often referred to as RF cable, offers advantages of convenience of use while being able to provide a good level of performance. In view of this vast amounts of coax cable, coax feeder are manufactured each year, and it is also available in a wide variety of forms for different applications.

Applications of coax cable

Coax cable or coaxial feeder is used in many applications where it is necessary to transfer radio frequency energy from one point to another. Possibly the most obvious use of coax cable is for domestic television down-leads, but it is widely used in many other areas as well.

While it is used for domestic connections between receivers and aerials, it is likewise also used for commercial and industrial transmission lines connecting receivers and transmitters to antennas. However it is also sued where any high frequency signals need to be carried any distance.

The construction of the coaxial cable means that signals that the levels of loss and stray pick-up are minimised. In view of this it is also used in many computer applications. Coax cable was used for some early forms of Ethernet local area networks, although now optical fibres are used for higher data rates, or twisted pairs where frequencies are not so high as these cables are much cheaper than coax.

RF coax cable history

RF coaxial cable is a particularly important part of today's RF and electronics scene. It is a component that could easily be overlooked with little thought of how it appeared. In the late 1800s there were a huge number of basic discoveries being made in the field of electricity. Radio, or wireless as it was originally called was not understood well, and the first transmissions were made in the 1890s. Some transmissions were made earlier but not understood.

The first known implementation of coax cable was in 1884 when Ernst von Siemens (one of the founders of the Siemens empire) patented the idea, although there were no known applications at this time. It then took until 1929 before the first modern commercial coax cables were patented by Bell Laboratories, although its use was still relatively small. Nevertheless it was used in 1934 to relay television pictures of the Berlin Olympics to Leipzig. Then in 1936 an a coaxial cable was installed between London and Birmingham in the UK to carry 40 telephone calls, and in the USA an experimental coaxial cable was installed between New York and Philadelphia to relay television pictures.

With the commercial use of RF coax cable establishing itself, many other used the cable for shorter runs. It quickly established itself, and now it is widely used for both commercial and domestic applications.

What is coax cable? - the basics

Coax cable, coaxial feeder is normally seen as a thick electrical cable. The cable is made from a number of different elements that when together enable the coax cable to carry the radio frequency signals with a low level of loss from one location to another. The main elements within a coax cable are:

  1. Centre conductor

  2. Insulating dielectric

  3. Outer conductor

  4. Outer protecting jacket or sheath

The overall construction of the coax cable or RF cable can be seen in the diagram below and from this it can be seen that it is built up from a number of concentric layers. Although there are many varieties of coax cable, the basic overall construction remains the same:

Coax / coaxial cable cross section
Cross section though coaxial cable

  1. Centre conductor     The centre conductor of the coax is almost universally made of copper. Sometimes it may be a single conductor whilst in other RF cables it may consist of several strands.

  2. Insulating dielectric     Between the two conductors of the coax cable there is an insulating dielectric. This holds the two conductors apart and in an ideal world would not introduce any loss, although it is one of the chief causes of loss in reality. This coax cable dielectric may be solid or as in the case of many low loss cables it may be semi-airspaced because it is the dielectric that introduces most of the loss. This may be in the form of long "tubes" in the dielectric, or a "foam" construction where air forms a major part of the material.

  3. Outer conductor     The outer conductor of the RF cable is normally made from a copper braid. This enables the coax cable to be flexible which would not be the case if the outer conductor was solid, although in some varieties made for particular applications it is. To improve the screening double or even triple screened coax cables are sometimes used. Normally this is accomplished by placing one braid directly over another although in some instances a copper foil or tape outer may be used. By using additional layers of screening, the levels of stray pick-up and radiation are considerably reduced. The loss is marginally lower.

  4. Outer protecting jacket or sheath     Finally there is a final cover or outer sheath to the coax cable. This serves little electrical function, but can prevent earth loops forming. It also gives a vital protection needed to prevent dirt and moisture attacking the cable, and prevent the coax cable from being damaged by other mechanical means.

How RF coax cable works

A coaxial cable carries current in both the inner and the outer conductors. These current are equal and opposite and as a result all the fields are confined within the cable and it neither radiates nor picks up signals.

This means that the cable operates by propagating an electromagnetic wave inside the cable. As there are no fields outside the coax cable it is not affected by nearby objects. Accordingly it is ideal for applications where the RF cable has to be routed through or around buildings or close to many other objects. This is a particular advantage of coaxial feeder when compared with other forms of feeder such as two wire (open wire, or twin) feeder.

Further reading

There are further articles and pages about coax cable on this site. Topics include the velocity factor, coax cable loss, coax cable power rating, and the environmental considerations for these RF cables. The menu can be seen at the bottom end of the left hand menu.

By Ian Poole

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