RC Differentiator

Table of Contents

For a passive RC differentiator circuit, the input is connected to a capacitor while the output voltage is taken from across a resistance being the exact opposite to the RC Integrator Circuit.

A passive RC differentiator is nothing more than a capacitance in series with a resistance, that is a frequency dependant device which has reactance in series with a fixed resistance (the opposite to an integrator). Just like the integrator circuit, the output voltage depends on the circuits RC time constant and input frequency.

Thus at low input frequencies the reactance, XC of the capacitor is high blocking any d.c. voltage or slowly varying input signals. While at high input frequencies the capacitors reactance is low allowing rapidly varying pulses to pass directly from the input to the output.

This is because the ratio of the capacitive reactance (XC) to resistance (R) is different for different frequencies and the lower the frequency the less output. So for a given time constant, as the frequency of the input pulses increases, the output pulses more and more resemble the input pulses in shape.

We saw this effect in our tutorial about Passive High Pass Filters and if the input signal is a sine wave, an rc differentiator will simply act as a simple high pass filter (HPF) with a cut-off or corner frequency that corresponds to the RC time constant (tau, τ) of the series network.

Thus when fed with a pure sine wave an RC differentiator circuit acts as a simple passive high pass filter due to the standard capacitive reactance formula of XC = 1/(2πƒC).

But a simple RC network can also be configured to perform differentiation of the input signal. We know from previous tutorials that the current through a capacitor is a complex exponential given by: iC = C(dVc/dt). The rate at which the capacitor charges (or discharges) is directly proportional to the amount of resistance and capacitance giving the time constant of the circuit. Thus the time constant of a RC differentiator circuit is the time interval that equals the product of R and C. Consider the basic RC series circuit below.

RC Differentiator Circuit

rc differentiator circuit

For an RC differentiator circuit, the input signal is applied to one side of the capacitor with the output taken across the resistor, then VOUT equals VR. As the capacitor is a frequency dependant element, the amount of charge that is established across the plates is equal to the time domain integral of the current. That is it takes a certain amount of time for the capacitor to fully charge as the capacitor can not charge instantaneously only charge exponentially.

We saw in our tutorial about RC Integrators that when a single step voltage pulse is applied to the input of an RC integrator, the output becomes a sawtooth waveform if the RC time constant is long enough. The RC differentiator will also change the input waveform but in a different way to the integrator.

Resistor Voltage

resistor voltage

We said previously that for the RC differentiator, the output is equal to the voltage across the resistor, that is: VOUT equals VR and being a resistance, the output voltage can change instantaneously.

However, the voltage across the capacitor can not change instantly but depends on the value of the capacitance, C as it tries to store an electrical charge, Q across its plates. Then the current flowing into the capacitor, that is it depends on the rate of change of the charge across its plates. Thus the capacitor current is not proportional to the voltage but to its time variation giving: i = dQ/dt.

As the amount of charge across the capacitors plates is equal to Q = C x Vc, that is capacitance times voltage, we can derive the equation for the capacitors current as:

Capacitor Current

rc differentiator capacitor current

Therefore the capacitor current can be written as:

capacitor current

As VOUT equals VR where VR according to ohms law is equal too: iR x R. The current that flows through the capacitor must also flow through the resistance as they are both connected together in series. Thus:

rc differentiator output voltage

Thus the standard equation given for an RC differentiator circuit is:

RC Differentiator Formula

rc differentiator formula

Then we can see that the output voltage, VOUT is the derivative of the input voltage, VIN which is weighted by the constant of RC. Where RC represents the time constant, τ of the series circuit.

Single Pulse RC Differentiator

When a single step voltage pulse is firstly applied to the input of an RC differentiator, the capacitor “appears” initially as a short circuit to the fast changing signal. This is because the slope dv/dt of the positive-going edge of a square wave is very large (ideally infinite), thus at the instant the signal appears, all the input voltage passes through to the output appearing across the resistor.

charging capacitor voltage

After the initial positive-going edge of the input signal has passed and the peak value of the input is constant, the capacitor starts to charge up in its normal way via the resistor in response to the input pulse at a rate determined by the RC time constant, τ = RC.

As the capacitor charges up, the voltage across the resistor, and thus the output decreases in an exponentially way until the capacitor becomes fully charged after a time constant of 5RC (5T), resulting in zero output across the resistor. Thus the voltage across the fully charged capacitor equals the value of the input pulse as: VC = VIN and this condition holds true so long as the magnitude of the input pulse does not change.

If now the input pulse changes and returns to zero, the rate of change of the negative-going edge of the pulse pass through the capacitor to the output as the capacitor can not respond to this high dv/dt change. The result is a negative going spike at the output.

discharging capacitor voltage

After the initial negative-going edge of the input signal, the capacitor recovers and starts to discharge normally and the output voltage across the resistor, and therefore the output, starts to increases exponentially as the capacitor discharges.

Thus whenever the input signal is changing rapidly, a voltage spike is produced at the output with the polarity of this voltage spike depending on whether the input is changing in a positive or a negative direction, as a positive spike is produced with the positive-going edge of the input signal, and a negative spike produced as a result of the negative-going input signal.

Thus the RC differentiator output is effectively a graph of the rate of change of the input signal which has no resemblance to the square wave input wave, but consists of narrow positive and negative spikes as the input pulse changes value.

By varying the time period, T of the square wave input pulses with respect to the fixed RC time constant of the series combination, the shape of the output pulses will change as shown.

RC Differentiator Output Waveforms

rc differentiator output waveforms

Then we can see that the shape of the output waveform depends on the ratio of the pulse width to the RC time constant. When RC is much larger (greater than 10RC) than the pulse width the output waveform resembles the square wave of the input signal. When RC is much smaller (less than 0.1RC) than the pulse width, the output waveform takes the form of very sharp and narrow spikes as shown above.

So by varying the time constant of the circuit from 10RC to 0.1RC we can produce a range of different wave shapes. Generally a smaller time constant is always used in RC differentiator circuits to provide good sharp pulses at the output across R. Thus the differential of a square wave pulse (high dv/dt step input) is an infinitesimally short spike resulting in an RC differentiator circuit.

Lets assume a square wave waveform has a period, T of 20mS giving a pulse width of 10mS (20mS divided by 2). For the spike to discharge down to 37% of its initial value, the pulse width must equal the RC time constant, that is RC = 10mS. If we choose a value for the capacitor, C of 1uF, then R equals 10kΩ.

For the output to resemble the input, we need RC to be ten times (10RC) the value of the pulse width, so for a capacitor value of say, 1uF, this would give a resistor value of: 100kΩ. Likewise, for the output to resemble a sharp pulse, we need RC to be one tenth (0.1RC) of the pulse width, so for the same capacitor value of 1uF, this would give a resistor value of: 1kΩ, and so on.

RC Differentiator Example

rc differentiator example

So by having an RC value of one tenth the pulse width (and in our example above this is 0.1 x 10mS = 1mS) or lower we can produce the required spikes at the output, and the lower the RC time constant for a given pulse width, the sharper the spikes. Thus the exact shape of the output waveform depends on the value of the RC time constant.

RC Differentiator Summary

We have seen here in this RC Differentiator tutorial that the input signal is applied to one side of a capacitor and the the output is taken across the resistor. A differentiator circuit is used to produce trigger or spiked typed pulses for timing circuit applications.

When a square wave step input is applied to this RC circuit, it produces a completely different wave shape at the output. The shape of the output waveform depending on the periodic time, T (an therefore the frequency, ƒ) of the input square wave and on the circuit’s RC time constant value.

When the periodic time of the input waveform is similar too, or shorter than, (higher frequency) the circuits RC time constant, the output waveform resembles the input waveform, that is a square wave profile. When the periodic time of the input waveform is much longer than, (lower frequency) the circuits RC time constant, the output waveform resembles narrow positive and negative spikes.

The positive spike at the output is produced by the leading-edge of the input square wave, while the negative spike at the output is produced by the falling-edge of the input square wave. Then the output of an RC differentiator circuit depends on the rate of change of the input voltage as the effect is very similar to the mathematical function of differentiation.


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