Design challenges for energy harvesting – Linear Technology

Steve Knoth, senior product marketing engineer at Linear Technology describes how to provide energy harvesting and battery pack protection with shunt charger IC systems

Just having started an initial adoption phase in the market place, energy harvesting ICs can convert an appropriate transducer’s output into an electric current for a battery charger device.

Recent technology developments have pushed energy harvesting to the point of commercial viability, even though it has been emerging since early 2000. The opportunities in energy harvesting applications are widespread and include the following:

• Replace or recharge battery powered systems in situations where battery replacement is inconvenient, impractical or dangerous
• Eliminate the need for wires to carry power or to transmit data
• Smart wireless sensor networks to monitor and optimize complex Industrial processes, remote field installations and building heating and cooling systems
• Harvesting otherwise wasted heat from industrial processes, solar panels, internal combustion engines
• Various consumer electronic accessory chargers

Many of these applications inherently have intermittent or low-power sources. And, so many implementations will want to charge a battery for a backup power source.

Shunt voltage references are simple to use; they have been around for many years and are in a myriad of products. However, they cannot effectively charge a battery. To configure one to do such a task is extremely cumbersome. Moreover, the ability to accurately and safely charge a Lithium-Ion/Polymer, coin cell or a thin film battery from a low-current source or an intermittent harvested energy source has been difficult to attain.

On the battery side, although technology has improved, portable electronic device battery cells or battery packs still require protection and conditioning to keep them running optimally. Lithium-Ion/Polymer batteries are a mature technology and a popular choice to power many electronic devices due to their high energy density, low self-discharge, low maintenance, and wide voltage range, among other features.

Coin cells offer high energy density, stable discharge characteristics and low weight in a small form factor. Thin film batteries are an emerging technology with such benefits as a high number of charge cycles and physical flexibility, i.e. they may be formed to fit in almost any shape depending on the end application. However, some potential detrimental effects on all these battery types exist if not properly charged and conditioned.

Design Challenges for Low Power Consumption Chargers

An adjustable shunt reference can be programmed for an appropriate battery float voltage, but it will lack the NTC function of a battery charger.  More importantly, the required operating current is so high that battery charging from low power or intermittent sources is not practical. Alternatively, a discrete shunt reference can be built from a Zener diode, resistors, an NPN transistor, and comparators for the NTC function.

However, it will still suffer from the same limitations outlined above. Additionally, it will be cumbersome to implement and will consume much valuable PCB area by comparison. 

Typical battery charger ICs require a constant DC input voltage and cannot handle bursts of energy. However, intermittent energy harvesting sources such as indoor photovoltaic arrays or piezoelectric transducers provide bursts of power. A unique IC with sub-1uA quiescent operating current is necessary to charge a battery from this type of energy source.

Lithium-Ion/Polymer chemistry batteries provide the high performance features necessary for portable electronic devices but must be treated with care. For example, Lithium-Ion/Polymer cells can become unstable if charged over 100mV beyond their recommended float voltage. Further, simultaneous instances of high voltage and high temperatures adversely affect battery life, and in extreme cases can lead to their self-destruction. In addition to potential adverse effects of simultaneous high temperature & high voltage, coin cells and thin film batteries have capacity issues due to their small form factor.

Shunt Architecture Basics and Benefits

A shunt reference is a current-fed, two terminal device that draws no current until the target voltage is reached. A shunt reference is used like a Zener diode and is often shown on a circuit schematic as a Zener diode. However, most shunt references are actually based on a bandgap reference voltage.

A shunt reference requires only a single external resistor to regulate its output voltage making it extremely easy to use. There is no maximum input voltage limit, and the minimum input voltage is set by the value of the reference voltage because some headroom is required for proper operation.

Further, shunt references have good stability over a wide range of currents. Many shunts are also stable with large or small capacitive loads.

A Simple Solution

Any solution to satisfy the battery charger IC design constraints outlined above would have to combine a shunt regulator’s characteristics and those of a battery charging IC with the ability to charge from low power continuous or intermittent sources. Such a device would also need to protect and extract the maximum performance from a Lithium-ion/Polymer battery, coin cell, or thin film battery or battery pack.

Linear Technology developed the industry’s first shunt-architecture battery chargers, the LTC4070 and the LTC4071 to address these applications. The LTC4070 is an easy-to-use, tiny shunt battery charger system IC for Li-Ion/Polymer batteries, coin cells, or thin film batteries. With its 450nA operating current, the IC protects batteries and charges them from previously unusable very low current, intermittent or continuous charging sources. The LTC4070’s charge current may be boosted from 50mA up to 500mA with the addition of an external PMOS shunt device.

An internal thermal battery conditioner reduces the float voltage to protect Li-Ion/Polymer cells at elevated battery tem peratures. Multiple-cell battery stacks can be charged and balanced by configuring several LTC4070s in series. Housed in a low profile (0.75mm) 8-lead 2mm x 3mm DFN package, the LTC4070 provides a complete and ultra-compact charger solution with just a single external resistor required in series with the input voltage.

The device’s feature set suits it well for both continuous and intermittent, lower power charging source applications including Lithium-Ion/Polymer battery backup, thin film batteries, coin cell batteries, memory backup, solar-powered systems, embedded automotive and energy harvesting.

With pin-selectable settings of 4.0V, 4.1V, and 4.2V, the LTC4070’s 1% accurate battery float voltage allows the user to make tradeoffs between battery energy density and lifetime. Independent low battery and high battery supervisory status outputs indicate a discharged or fully charged battery.  In conjunction with an external P-FET in series with the load, the low battery status output enables a latch-off function that automatically disconnects the system load from the battery to protect the battery from deep discharge.

In addition to its compact 2mmx3mm 8-lead DFN package, the LTC4070 is also offered in an 8-lead MSOP package. The devices are rated for operation from -40 to 125 deg C.

The LTC4070 provides a simple, reliable, and high performance battery protection and charging solution by preventing the battery voltage from exceeding a programmed level. Its shunt architecture requires just one resistor between the input supply and the battery to handle a wide range of battery applications. When the input supply is removed and the battery voltage is below the high battery output threshold, the LTC4070 consumes just 450nA from the battery.

While the battery voltage is below the programmed float voltage, the charge rate is determined by the input voltage, the battery voltage, and the input resistor:


As the battery voltage approaches the float voltage, the LTC4070 shunts current away from the battery thereby reducing the charge current. The LTC4070 can shunt up to 50mA with a float voltage accuracy of ±1% over temperature. The shunt current limits the maximum charge current, but the 50mA internal capability can be increased by adding an external P-channel MOSFET; refer to Figure 1.

The LTC4071 Integrates Battery Pack Protection

The LTC4071 is also a shunt battery charger system, and the first with integrated battery pack protection including low battery disconnect.  Compared to the LTC4070, the LTC4071’s differences include integrated pack protection (low battery disconnect) but lower 50mA charge current capability, higher 550nA quiescent current and no LBO. The low battery disconnect is a critical function required to protect low capacity batteries from damage due to self-discharge.

While the LTC4070 can perform a low battery disconnect function with the LBO and an external P-FET, the IC will continue to consume full IQ (about 0.5uA) from the battery. Even this battery drain current can damage a low capacity battery overnight. 

Conversely, the LTC4071 integrates a complete low battery disconnect which consumes nearly zero current from the battery when disconnected (<1nA at room temperature and <25nA at 125°C).  To provide this function in the LTC4071, the LTC4070’s LBO and DRV pin have been eliminated.

This makes the LTC4071’s maximum shunt current fixed at 50mA (LTC4070 is 50mA capable with 500mA possible with an external FET) and increases the IC’s quiescent current to 550nA (LTC4070 has 450nA). 

Shunt references have many applications, and depending on their feature set, they can even be used to charge a battery. However, this type of implementation has many drawbacks including high quiescent current and lack of battery protection features. Low-power energy harvesting applications are now primed for conditioning by the right type of DC-DC converter or battery charger.

Linear Technology developed the LTC4070 and LTC4071 shunt charger systems for Li-Ion/Polymer cells, coin cells, thin film batteries and battery packs, to provide a simple, effective battery charging and pack protection solution for cutting-edge applications with low-power sources.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *