Step Down Buck Regulator / Converter

- summary or tutorial about the circuit and operation of a step down or buck regulator using switch mode power supply techniques.

With power being a key parameter in many designs, step down or "buck" regulators are widely used.

Although a resistor would enable voltage to be dropped, power is lost, and in applications such as the many battery powered items used today, power consumption is a crucial element.

As a result step down switch mode converters or as they are more commonly termed, buck regulators are widely used.


Linear step down

The most basic form of step down transition is to use a resistor as a potential divider or voltage dropper. In some cases a zener diode may also be used to stabilise the voltage.

Linear step down regulator

The issue with this form of voltage dropper or step down converter is that it is very wasteful in terms of power. Any voltage dropped across the resistor will be dissipated as heat, and any current flowing through the zener diode will also dissipate heat. Both of these elements result on the loss of valuable energy.


Basic buck converter or regulator

The fundamental circuit for a step down converter or buck converter consists of an inductor, diode, capacitor, switch and error amplifier with switch control circuitry.

Buck regulator converter concept

The circuit for the buck regulator operates by varying the amount of time in which inductor receives energy from the source.

In the basic block diagram the operation of the buck converter or buck regulator can be seen that the output voltage appearing across the load is sensed by the sense / error amplifier and an error voltage is generated that controls the switch.

Typically the switch is controlled by a pulse width modulator, the switch remaining on of longer as more current is drawn by the load and the voltage tends to drop and often there is a fixed frequency oscillator to drive the switching.


Buck converter operation

When the switch in the buck regulator is on, the voltage that appears across the inductor is Vin - Vout. Using the inductor equations, the current in the inductor will rise at a rate of (Vin-Vout)/L. At this time the diode D is reverse biased and does not conduct.

Buck converter operation

When the switch opens, current must still flow as the inductor works to keep the same current flowing. As a result current still flows through the inductor and into the load. The diode, D then forms the return path with a current Idiode equal to Iout flowing through it.

With the switch open, the polarity of the voltage across the inductor has reversed and therefore the current through the inductor decreases with a slope equal to -Vout/L.

Buck converter operation

The step down, buck converter circuit can be further explained by examining the current waveforms at different times during the overall cycle.

Buck converter operation

In the diagram of the current waveforms for the buck converter / switching regulator, it can be seen that the inductor current is the sum of the diode and input / switch current. Current either flows through the switch or the diode.

It is also worth noting that the average input current is less than the average output current. This is to be expected because the buck converter circuit is very efficient and the input voltage is greater than the output voltage. Assuming a perfect circuit, then power in would equal power out, i.e. Vin ⋅ In = Vout ⋅ Iout. While in a real circuit there will be some losses, efficiency levels greater than 85% are to be expected for a well-designed circuit.

It will also be seen that there is a smoothing capacitor placed on the output. This serves to ensure that the voltage does not vary appreciable, especially during and switch transition times. It will also be required to smooth any switching spikes that occur.


Regulator input and output filtering

A key aspect of switch mode power supply regulators is the input and output filtering. This is a particular issue because of the switching that occurs at the input.

In reality ripple voltage on the output is dependent not only on the output smoothing, but more importantly on an input filter capacitor.

By Ian Poole


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