Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A varistor is a type of resistor with a significantly non-ohmic current-voltage characteristic. The name is a portmanteau of variable resistor*, which is misleading since it is not continuously user-variable like a potentiometer or rheostat, and is not a resistor but in fact a capacitor. Varistors are often used to protect circuits against excessive voltage by acting as a spark gap.
Metal oxide varistor
The most common type of varistor is the metal oxide varistor, or MOV. This contains a mass of zinc oxide grains, in a matrix of other metal oxides, 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, causes by reverse leakage through the diode junctions. When a large voltage is applied, the diode junctions break down because of the avalanche effect, and a large current flows. The result of this behaviour 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.
Important parameters for varistors are response time (how long it takes the varistor to break down), maximum current and a well-defined breakdown voltage. When used in communications lines (such as phone lines used for modems), high capacitance is undesirable since it absorbs high frequency signals, thereby reducing the available bandwidth of the line being protected.
Varistors compared to other transient-suppressors
Another method for suppressing voltage spikes is the transient voltage suppression diode (TVS). There are two significant differences between a varistor and a TVS:
- Varistors typically have an order of magnitude more leakage current, ie they will drain a battery 10 times faster.
- Varistors degrade over time. This shows up after repeated transient events.
Another transient voltage suppression device is the gas discharge tube , which unfortunately, has a much higher break down voltage, but also a much much higher carrying capacity, and can withstand multiple high voltage hits (i.e., from lightning) without significant degradation.
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