Electrical Impedance Matching and Termination

When computer systems were first introduced decades ago, they were large, slow-working devices that were incompatible with each other. Today, national and international networking standards have established electronic control protocols that enable different systems to "talk" to each other. The Electronics Industries Associations (EIA) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) developed standards that established common terminology and interface requirements, such as EIA RS-232 and IEEE 802.3. If a system designer builds equipment to comply with these standards, the equipment will interface with other systems. But what about analog signals that are used in ultrasonics?

Data Signals: Input versus Output

Consider the signal going to and from ultrasonic transducers. When you transmit data through a cable, the requirement usually simplifies into comparing what goes in one end with what comes out the other. High frequency pulses degrade or deteriorate when they are passed through any cable. Both the height of the pulse (magnitude) and the shape of the pulse (wave form) change dramatically, and the amount of change depends on the data rate, transmission distance and the cable's electrical characteristics. Sometimes a marginal electrical cable may perform adequately if used in only short lengths, but the same cable with the same data in long lengths will fail. This is why system designers and industry standards specify precise cable criteria.

Cable Electrical Characteristics

The most important characteristics in an electronic cable are impedance, attenuation, shielding, and capacitance. In this page, we can only review these characteristics very generally, however, we will discuss capacitance in more detail.

Impedance (Ohms) represents the total resistance that the cable presents to the electrical current passing through it. At low frequencies the impedance is largely a function of the conductor size, but at high frequencies conductor size, insulation material, and insulation thickness all affect the cable's impedance. Matching impedance is very important. If the system is designed to be 100 Ohms, then the cable should match that impedance, otherwise error-producing reflections are created.

Attenuation is measured in decibels per unit length (dB/m), and provides an indication of the signal loss as it travels through the cable. Attenuation is very dependent on signal frequency. A cable that works very well with low frequency data may do very poorly at higher data rates. Cables with lower attenuation are better.

Shielding is normally specified as a cable construction detail. For example, the cable may be unshielded, contain shielded pairs, have an overall aluminum/mylar tape and drain wire, or have a double shield. Cable shields usually have two functions: to act as a barrier to keep external signals from getting in and internal signals from getting out, and to be a part of the electrical circuit. Shielding effectiveness is very complex to measure and depends on the data frequency within the cable and the precise shield design. A shield may be very effective in one frequency range, but a different frequency may require a completely different design. System designers often test complete cable assemblies or connected systems for shielding effectiveness.

Capacitance in a cable is usually measured as picofarads per foot (pf/m). It indicates how much charge the cable can store within itself. If a voltage signal is being transmitted by a twisted pair, the insulation of the individual wires becomes charged by the voltage within the circuit. Since it takes a certain amount of time for the cable to reach its charged level, this slows down and interferes with the signal being transmitted. Digital data pulses are a string of voltage variations that are represented by square waves. A cable with a high capacitance slows down these signals so that they come out of the cable looking more like "saw-teeth," rather than square waves. The lower the capacitance of the cable, the better it performs with high speed data.