An operational amplifier, often called an op-amp , is a DC-coupled high-gain electronic voltage amplifier with differential inputs and, usually, a single output. Typically the output of the op-amp is controlled either by negative feedback, which largely determines the magnitude of its output voltage gain, or by positive feedback, which facilitates regenerative gain and oscillation. High input impedance at the input terminals and low output impedance are important typical characteristics.
Op-amps are among the most widely used electronic devices today, being used in a vast array of consumer, industrial, and scientific devices. Many standard IC op-amps cost only a few cents in moderate production volume; however some integrated or hybrid operational amplifiers with special performance specifications may cost over $100 US in small quantities.
Modern designs are electronically more rugged than earlier implementations and some can sustain direct short-circuits on their outputs without damage.
The op-amp is one type of differential amplifier. Other types of differential amplifier include the fully differential amplifier (similar to the op-amp, but with 2 outputs), the instrumentation amplifier (usually built from 3 op-amps), the isolation amplifier (similar to the instrumentation amplifier, but which works fine with common-mode voltages that would destroy an ordinary op-amp), and negative feedback amplifier (usually built from 1 or more op-amps and a resistive feedback network).
The circuit symbol for an op-amp is shown in Figure 1
The power supply pins (VS+ and VS−) can be labeled in different ways (See IC power supply pins). Despite different labeling, the function remains the same. Often these pins are left out of the diagram for clarity, and the power configuration is described or assumed from the circuit.
Shown on the right is an example of an ideal operational amplifier. The main part in an amplifier is the dependent voltage source that increases in relation to the voltage drop across Rin, thus amplifying the voltage difference between V+ and V-. Many uses have been found for operational amplifiers and an ideal op-amp seeks to characterize the physical phenomena that make op-amps useful.
Vs+ and Vs- are not connected to the circuit within the op-amp because they power the dependent voltage source's circuit (not shown). These are notable, however, because they determine the maximum voltage the dependent voltage source can output.
For any input voltages the ideal op-amp has
Because of these properties, an op-amp can be modeled as a nullor.
In 1953, vacuum tube op-amps became commercially available with the release of the K2-W from GAP/R. It sold in an octal package and had a (K2-P) chopper add-on available that would effectively "use up" the non-inverting input. This op-amp was based on a descendant of Loebe Julie's 1947 design and, along with its successors, would start the widespread use of op-amps in industry.
The use of op-amps as circuit blocks is much easier and clearer than specifying all their individual circuit elements (transistors, resistors, etc.), whether the amplifiers used are integrated or discrete. In the first approximation op-amps can be used as if they were ideal differential gain blocks; at a later stage limits can be placed on the acceptable range of parameters for each op-amp.
Circuit design follows the same lines for all electronic circuits. A specification is drawn up governing what the circuit is required to do, with allowable limits. For example, the gain may be required to be 100 times, with a tolerance of 5% but drift of less than 1% in a specified temperature range; the input impedance not less than 1 megohm; etc.
A basic circuit is designed, often with the help of circuit modeling (on a computer). Specific commercially available op-amps and other components are then chosen that meet the design criteria within the specified tolerances at acceptable cost. If not all criteria can be met, the specification may need to be modified.
A prototype is then built and tested; changes to meet or improve the specification, alter functionality, or reduce the cost, may be made.
In its most common use, the op-amp's output voltage is controlled by feeding a fraction of the output signal back to the inverting input. This is known as negative feedback. If that fraction is zero, i.e., there is no negative feedback, the amplifier is said to be running "open loop" and its output is the differential input voltage multiplied by the total gain of the amplifier, as shown by the following equation:
where V+ is the voltage at the non-inverting terminal, V− is the voltage at the inverting terminal and G is the total open-loop gain of the amplifier.
Because the magnitude of the open-loop gain is typically very large and not well controlled by the manufacturing process, op-amps are not usually used without negative feedback. Unless the differential input voltage is extremely small, open-loop operation results in op-amp saturation (see below in Nonlinear imperfections). An example of how the output voltage is calculated when negative feedback exists is shown below in Basic non-inverting amplifier circuit.
Another typical configuration of op-amps is the positive feedback, which takes a fraction of the output signal back to the non-inverting input. An important application of it is the comparator with hysteresis (see Schmitt trigger).
The general op-amp has two inputs and one output. The output voltage is a multiple of the difference between the two inputs (some are made with floating, differential outputs):
If the output is connected to the inverting input, after being scaled by a voltage divider:
Solving for Vout / Vin, we see that the result is a linear amplifier with gain: '
If G is very large, Vout/Vin comes close to 1/K, which equals 1 + (R2/R1).
This negative feedback connection is the most typical use of an op-amp, but many different configurations are possible, making it one of the most versatile of all electronic building blocks.
When connected in a negative feedback configuration, the op-amp will try to make Vout whatever voltage is necessary to make the input voltages as nearly equal as possible. This, and the high input impedance, are sometimes called the two "golden rules" of op-amp design (for circuits that use negative feedback):
The exception is if the voltage required is greater than the op-amp's supply, in which case the output signal stops near the power supply rails, VS+ or VS−.
Most single, dual and quad op-amps available have a standardized pin-out which permits one type to be substituted for another without wiring changes. A specific op-amp may be chosen for its open loop gain, bandwidth, noise performance, input impedance, power consumption, or a compromise between any of these factors.
Real op-amps can only approach this ideal: in addition to the practical limitations on slew rate, bandwidth, offset and so forth mentioned above, real op-amp parameters are subject to drift over time and with changes in temperature, input conditions, etc. Modern integrated FET or MOSFET op-amps approximate more closely the ideal op-amp than bipolar ICs where large signals must be handled at room temperature over a limited bandwidth; input impedance, in particular, is much higher, although the bipolar op-amps usually exhibit superior (i.e., lower) input offset drift and noise characteristics.
Where the limitations of real devices can be ignored, an op-amp can be viewed as a black box with gain; circuit function and parameters are determined by feedback, usually negative. IC op-amps as implemented in practice are moderately complex integrated circuits; see the internal circuitry for the relatively simple 741 op-amp below, for example.
Open-loop gain is defined as the amplification from input to output without any feedback applied. For most practical calculations, the open-loop gain is assumed to be infinite; in reality it is obviously not. Typical devices exhibit open-loop DC gain ranging from 100,000 to over 1 million; this is sufficiently large for circuit gain to be determined almost entirely by the amount of negative feedback used. Op-amps have performance limits that the designer must keep in mind and sometimes work around. In particular, instability is possible in a DC amplifier if AC aspects are neglected.
Other imperfections include:
The op-amp gain calculated at DC does not apply at higher frequencies. To a first approximation, the gain of a typical op-amp is inversely proportional to frequency. This means that an op-amp is characterized by its gain-bandwidth product. For example, an op-amp with a gain bandwidth product of 1 MHz would have a gain of 5 at 200 kHz, and a gain of 1 at 1 MHz. This low-pass characteristic is introduced deliberately, because it tends to stabilize the circuit by introducing a dominant pole. This is known as frequency compensation.
Typical low cost, general purpose op-amps exhibit a gain bandwidth product of a few megahertz. Specialty and high speed op-amps can achieve gain bandwidth products of hundreds of megahertz. For very high-frequency circuits, a completely different form of op-amp called the current-feedback operational amplifier is often used.
Other imperfections include:
Very often operational amplifiers are used for audio filters. It is important to evaluate the distortion introduced by the Distortion Multiplication Factor (Kd) described by Oscar Bonello The behavior of this type of operational amplifiers is important to get low distortion amplifiers and audio consoles for sound recording and reproduction.
Though designs vary between products and manufacturers, all op-amps have basically the same internal structure, which consists of three stages:
The sections outlined in red are current mirrors. The primary current, from which other standing (bias) currents are generated, is determined by the chip's power supply and the 39 kΩ resistor acting (with the two transistor diode junctions) as a current source. The current generated is approximately (VS+ − VS− − 2Vbe)/39 kΩ. The input stage DC conditions are controlled by the two current mirrors on the left. Q10 and Q11 form a Widlar current source where the 5 kΩ resistor sets the collector current of Q10 to a very small fraction of the primary current. The constant Q10 current supplies the base current for Q3 and Q4 but must also supply the Q9 collector current, which the Q8/Q9 current mirror will try to make as large as the Q3 and Q4 collector currents. Thus the Q3/Q4 base current (which is of the same order as the input currents) will be a small fraction of the already small Q10 current. Another way of looking at this is that if the input stage current tends to increase above the Q10 current, the Q8/Q9 current mirror will draw current away from the common base of Q3 and Q4, throttling the input stage, and vice versa. Thus the input stage DC conditions are stabilized by a high-gain negative feedback system. The feedback loop also isolates the rest of the circuit from common mode variations by making the base voltage of Q3/Q4 follow tightly 2Vbe below that of the highest input voltage.
The top-right current mirror Q12/Q13 provides a constant current load for the class A gain stage, via the collector of Q13, that is largely independent of the output voltage.
The blue outlined section is a differential amplifier. Q1 and Q2 are input emitter followers and together with the common base pair Q3 and Q4 form the differential input stage. In addition, Q3 and Q4 also act as level shifters and provide voltage gain to drive the class A amplifier. They also help to increase the reverse Vbe rating on the input transistors.
The differential amplifier formed by Q1 - Q4 drives a current mirror active load formed by transistors Q5 - Q7. Q7 increases the accuracy of the current mirror by decreasing the amount of signal current required from Q3 to drive the bases of Q5 and Q6. This current mirror provides differential to single ended conversion as follows:
The signal current of Q3 is the input to the current mirror while the output of the mirror (the collector of Q6) is connected to the collector of Q4. Here, the signal currents of Q3 and Q4 are summed. For differential input signals, the signal currents of Q3 and Q4 are equal and opposite. Thus, the sum is twice the individual signal currents. This completes the differential to single ended conversion.
The open circuit signal voltage appearing at this point is given by the product of the summed signal currents and the paralleled collector resistances of Q4 and Q6. Since the collectors of Q4 and Q6 appear as high resistances to the signal current, the open circuit voltage gain of this stage is very high.
It should be noted that the base current at the inputs is not zero and the effective (differential) input impedance of a 741 is about 2 MΩ. The "offset null" pins may be used to place external resistors in parallel with the two 1 kΩ resistors (typically in the form of the two ends of a potentiometer) to adjust the balancing of the Q5/Q6 current mirror and thus indirectly control the output of the op-amp when zero signal is applied between the inputs.
The section outlined in magenta is the class A gain stage. It consists of two NPN transistors in a Darlington configuration and uses the output side of a current mirror as its collector load to achieve high gain. The 30 pF capacitor provides frequency selective negative feedback around the class A gain stage as a means of frequency compensation to stabilise the amplifier in feedback configurations. This technique is called Miller compensation and functions in a similar manner to an op-amp integrator circuit. It is also known as 'dominant pole compensation' because it introduces a dominant pole (one which masks the effects of other poles) into the open loop frequency response. This pole can be as low as 10 Hz in a 741 amplifier and it introduces a −3 dB loss into the open loop response at this frequency. This is done to achieve unconditional stability of the amplifier down to unity closed loop gain using non-reactive feedback networks and makes this type of internally compensated amplifier easier to use.
The green outlined section (based around Q16) is a voltage level shifter or Vbe multiplier; a type of voltage source. In the circuit as shown, Q16 provides a constant voltage drop between its collector and emitter regardless of the current passing through the circuit. If the base current to the transistor is assumed to be zero, and the voltage between base and emitter (and across the 7.5 kΩ resistor) is 0.625 V (a typical value for a BJT in the active region), then the current flowing through the 4.5 kΩ resistor will be the same as that through the 7.5 kΩ, and will produce a voltage of 0.375 V across it. This keeps the voltage across the transistor, and the two resistors at 0.625 + 0.375 = 1 V. This serves to bias the two output transistors slightly into conduction reducing crossover distortion. In some discrete component amplifiers this function is achieved with (usually 2) silicon diodes.
The output stage (outlined in cyan) is a Class AB push-pull emitter follower (Q14, Q20) amplifier with the bias set by the Vbe multiplier voltage source Q16 and its base resistors. This stage is effectively driven by the collectors of Q13 and Q19. The output range of the amplifier is about 1 volt less than the supply voltage, owing in part to Vbe of the output transistors Q14 and Q20.
The 25 Ω resistor in the output stage acts as a current sense to provide the output current limiting function which limits the current flow in the emitter follower Q14 to about 25 mA for the 741. Current limiting for the negative output is done by sensing the voltage across Q19's emitter resistor and using this to reduce the drive into Q15's base. Later versions of this amplifier schematic may show a slightly different method of output current limiting. The output resistance is not zero as it would be in an ideal op-amp but with negative feedback it approaches zero.
''Note: while the 741 was historically used in audio and other sensitive equipment, such use is now rare because of the improved noise performance of more modern op-amps. Apart from generating noticeable hiss, 741s and other older op-amps may have poor common-mode rejection ratios and so will often introduce cable-borne mains hum and other common-mode interference, such as switch 'clicks', into sensitive equipment.