Varistor

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A varistor is an electronic component with a "diode-like" nonlinear current–voltage characteristic. The name is a portmanteau of variable resistor. Varistors are often used to protect circuits against excessive transient voltages by incorporating them into the circuit in such a way that, when triggered, they will shunt the current created by the high voltage away from the sensitive components. A varistor is also known as Voltage Dependent Resistor or VDR. A varistor’s function is to conduct significantly increased current when voltage is excessive.

Note: only non-ohmic variable resistors are usually called varistors. Other, ohmic types of variable resistor include the potentiometer and the rheostat.

Contents

Metal oxide varistor

The most common type of varistor is the Metal Oxide Varistor (MOV). This contains a ceramic mass of zinc oxide grains, in a matrix of other metal oxides (such as small amounts of bismuth, cobalt, manganese) sandwiched between two metal plates (the electrodes). The boundary between each grain and its neighbour forms a diode junction, which allows current to flow in only one direction. The mass of randomly oriented grains is electrically equivalent to a network of back-to-back diode pairs, each pair in parallel with many other pairs. When a small or moderate voltage is applied across the electrodes, only a tiny current flows, caused by reverse leakage through the diode junctions. When a large voltage is applied, the diode junction breaks down due to a combination of thermionic emission and electron tunneling, and a large current flows. The result of this behavior is a highly nonlinear current-voltage characteristic, in which the MOV has a high resistance at low voltages and a low resistance at high voltages.

Follow-through current as a result of a lightning strike may generate excessive current that permanently damages a varistor. In general, the primary case of varistor breakdown is localized heating caused as an effect of thermal runaway. This is due to a lack of conformality in individual grain-boundary junctions, which leads to the failure of dominant current paths under thermal stress.

Varistors can absorb part of a surge. How much effect this has on risk to connected equipment depends on the equipment and details of the selected varistor. Varistors do not absorb a significant percentage of a lightning strike, as energy that must be conducted elsewhere is many orders of magnitude greater than what is absorbed by the small device.

A varistor remains non-conductive as a shunt mode device during normal operation when voltage remains well below its "clamping voltage". If a transient pulse (often measured in joules) is too high, the device may melt, burn, vaporize, or otherwise be damaged or destroyed. This (catastrophic) failure occurs when "Absolute Maximum Ratings" in manufacturer's datasheet are significantly exceeded. Varistor degradation is defined by manufacturer's life expectancy charts using curves that relate current, time, and number of transient pulses. A varistor fully degrades typically when its "clamping voltage" has changed by 10%. A fully degraded varistor remains functional (no catastrophic failure) and is not visibly damaged.

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