After reading the answers of two questions regarding the LM317, the answers made me think about whether I realy understand current source and current limiter.

In this answer it says:

The LM317 with the single series resistor between output and adjust input is actually a fixed current source, not a current limiter.

In another answer the LM317 is used as a "Precision Current Limiter". It is taken from the datasheet, so the wording should be right(?)

Now when I compare the "Precision Current Limiter" on page 17 and the "1A Current Regulator" on page 16, both have a "single series resistor between output and adjust input". What is the difference here?

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From a user perspective my understanding up til now was:

  • Current limiter: does never supply more current then the limit, but can provide less.
  • Constant current source: the current sourced(/sinked) stays always the same (at least the regulator tries to do so)

Is my understanding right?


4 Answers 4


Yes, you're right, but the figures you posted are the same configuration: they regulate the current over the output resistor measuring its voltage drop.

The basic difference between a voltage source and a current source, is that the first has a low output resistance (ideally 0), while the current source has a high output resistance (ideally infinite).

The voltage source with current limiting is made to provide a constant voltage in its operating range, but drops the output voltage as protection mechanism to prevent damaging the load and the source itself. Note that there are different methods of current limiting, one of which brings the current below the limit to prevent overheating.

In practice you can use a current limiting source to generate a specific current, but while a supply can handle it without problems, for an integrated devices is not a standard operating mode, and can result in wrong behavior.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "... while the current source has a high output current (ideally infinite)" - typo? I assume you mean ideally infinite output impedance? \$\endgroup\$
    – exscape
    Commented Mar 3, 2012 at 14:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ dehdeh yes sorry...but actually it's resistance, I'm not considering reactive effects \$\endgroup\$
    – clabacchio
    Commented Mar 3, 2012 at 14:38

There is no firm dividing line between a "source" and a "limit" (either in voltage or current). Hence the fact that your circuit is alternatively labeled as both.

Consider that when a current limiting circuit is actively limiting it's behaving exactly like a source.

The difference may be in the expectations. A "limit" may have relaxed performance/accuracy requirements and/or may not be expected to operate all the time.


You are forgetting one very important aspect of the circuit! The Load. The load makes all the difference. If the load connected to the circuit is of high resistance then the current limit is never reached. However, if the load is of low resistance then the current limiting feature of the circuit kicks in to limit the current to the set maximum.


Martin is absolutely right. It is the load that “regulates” the amount of current by changing its resistance/impedance up to the designed current regulation limit. When that is reached, the circuit functions as a constant current source. The excess power is dissipated in the pass transistor (or control IC) as heat and the load voltage is reduced to keep constant the power (current times voltage equals power in watts) of the load. That is why heat sinking devices are so important in this configuration. One example of current limiter, not constant current, is shown in the YouTube video below, where when the current limit is reached the circuit shuts down, like a fuse. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=fqeUpATJlZY Thanks.

  • \$\begingroup\$ A current source will maintain the specified current into the load if it will adsorb it keeping it constant with feed voltage changes. A current source can be used as a limiter but the voltage will rise to almost the supply voltage until the load adsorbes the current. It will limit the current to its set value. A current limiter can be as simple as a fuse. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gil
    Commented Jun 13, 2021 at 4:00

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