Under a fixed optimum current and negligible load (ie being used as a reference into an opamp) how steady is the voltage of a smoothed zener? The scenario is a zener carrying a current of 5mA in its optimum region, with that zener voltage being fed into a resistive voltage divider with a 100n cap for smoothing.

How steady is the voltage, assuming constant temperature? How does it compare to a "real" voltage reference chip?

Context: In a prototype I used the above configuration. In the second prototype I used a voltage divider smoothed with 100n cap fed from the power rail (3V on board regulator). The performance of the analog signal processing degraded considerably and I am wondering whether voltage stability is the problem.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Since a lot of "real" chips use buried zeners, it can't be that bad. \$\endgroup\$ – PlasmaHH May 28 '15 at 9:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ What's the zener voltage? (Low voltage zeners have a soft knee.) \$\endgroup\$ – George Herold May 28 '15 at 13:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ 3V, but I am more interested in voltage stability under constant current than absolute accuracy \$\endgroup\$ – Dirk Bruere May 28 '15 at 14:27

If you take the example of the BZX79C5V1 zener and read the data sheet it tells you that a 5V1 zener diode produces nominally 5.1 volts at 5mA of current flowing thru it. If you read a bit deeper, there is a "differential resistance" associated with the zener and for a 5V1 zener at 5mA this is nominally 40 ohms.

This basically means that the 5mA causes a volt drop 0.2 volts across this resistance and the rest of the volt drop (4.9 volts) can be modeled by a perfect zener at 4.9 volts. This tells you that if the current through the zener was increased to (say) 5.1 mA, the terminal zener voltage will change to 5.1mA*40 + 4.9 volts = 5.104 volts.

This is far worse than a moderately priced voltage reference chip because the voltage ref will ensure that the current into its "internal reference" is held constant across a wide range of supply voltages.

Most zener diode specifications do not contain details of how the zener diode terminal voltage changes with operating current (so you are a bit in the dark) but it's noteworthy that the differential resistance gets bigger for smaller zener currents and if you are loading the zener with a potential divider any expectations of an accurate voltage will be diminished.

Having said all of that, if your power supply is a little unstable in voltage then a zener diode ref will be better than a potential divider taken directly from the rail (unless you are using an ADC and taking ratiometric measurements using the supply as voltage reference).

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, even though I hate the "thru" spelling and my internal parser crashed because of the missing closing bracket all the way at the end. :-P (/teasy-pokey-mode) \$\endgroup\$ – Asmyldof May 28 '15 at 10:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Asmyldof final bracket added but laziness prevails on "thru" \$\endgroup\$ – Andy aka May 28 '15 at 10:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hah. Good man. :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Asmyldof May 28 '15 at 11:00

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