Ask The Applications Engineer—20: Interfacing To Serial Converters-II

Q. At the end of our discussion in the last issue, I was having a problem establishing communication between my ADC and my microcontroller. If you recall, the microcontroller always seemed to be reading a conversion result of FFF(HEX) regardless of the voltage on the analog input. What could be causing this?

A. There are a number of possible timing-related error sources. You could start trouble-shooting this problem by connecting all of the timing signals either to a logic analyzer or to a multi-channel oscilloscope (at least three channels are needed to look at all signals simultaneously). What you would see on the screen would look similar to the timing diagram in the figure below. First make sure that a Start Conversion command (CONVST) is being generated (coming either from the micro or from an independent oscillator). A frequent mistake is to apply a CONVST signal with the wrong polarity. The conversion is still performed, but not when you expect it to be. It is also important to remember that there is usually a minimum pulse width requirement on the CONVST signal (typically about 50 ns). The standard Write or Read pulse from fast microprocessors may not satisfy this requirement. If too short, the pulse width can be extended by inserting software Wait states.

Figure 1

Make certain that the micro is waiting for the conversion to be completed before the Read cycle begins. Your software should either be taking note of the time required to convert or be waiting for an End of Conversion (EOC) indicator from the ADC to generate an interrupt in the micro. Make sure that the polarity of the EOC signal is correct, otherwise the ADC will cause an interrupt while the conversion is in progress. If the micro is not responding to the interrupt, you should examine the configuration of the interrupt in your software.

It is also important to consider the state of the serial clock line (SCLK) while it is not addressing the converter. As I mentioned in our previous discussion, some DACs and ADCs do not operate correctly with continuous serial clocks. In addition to this, some devices require that the SCLK signal always idles in one particular state.

Q. O.K. I've found and corrected some bugs in my software and things seem to be improving. The data from the converter are changing as I vary the input voltage but the conversion results seem to have no recognizable format.

A Once again there are a number of possible error sources. The ADC will be outputting its conversion result either in straight binary or in twos complement format (BCD data converters are no longer widely used). Check that your micro is configured to accept the appropriate format. If the micro can't be configured to accept twos complement directly, you can convert the data to straight binary by exclusive-or'ing the number with 100 . . . 00 binary.

Normally the leading edge of the serial clock (either rising or falling) will enable the data out of the ADC and onto the data bus. The trailing edge then clocks the data into the micro. Make sure that both micro and ADC are operating under the same convention and that all Setup and Hold times are being met. A conversion result that is exactly half or double what one would expect is a tell-tale sign that the data (especially the MSB) is being clocked on the wrong edge. The same problem would manifest itself in a serial DAC as an output voltage that is half or double the expected value.

Figure 2

The digital signals driving the converter should be clean. In addition to causing possible long-term damage to the device, overshoot or undershoot can cause conversion and communication errors. The figure shows a signal with a large overshoot spike driving the clock input of a single-supply converter. In this case, the clock input drives the base of an PNP transistor. As is usual practice, the P-type substrate of the device is internally connected to the most negative potential available-in this case, ground. An excursion of more than 0.3 volts below ground on the SCLK line is sufficient to begin turning on a parasitic diode between the N-type base and the P-type substrate. If this happens frequently, over the long term, it may lead to damage to the device.

In the short term, though not causing damage, energizing the normally inert substrate affects other transistors in the device and can lead to multiple clock pulses being detected for each pulse applied. The resulting jitter is a serious matter in serial converters-but is less of a problem in parallel converters, because the Read and Write cycles generally depend upon the first applied pulse; subsequent pulses are ignored. However, the noise performance on both serial and parallel converters can suffer if signals of this kind are present during conversion.

The figure shows how overshoot can be easily reduced. A small resistor is placed in series on the digital line that is causing the problem. This resistance will combine with C(par), the parasitic capacitance of the digital input, to form a low-pass filter which should eliminate any ringing on the received signal. Typically a 50-W resistor is recommended, but some experimentation may be necessary. It may also be necessary to add an external capacitance from the input to ground if the internal capacitance of the digital input is insufficient. Here again, experimentation is necessary-but a good starting point would be about 10 pF.

Figure 3

Q. You mentioned that clock overshoot can degrade the noise performance of a converter. Is there anything else I can do from an interfacing point of view to get a good signal to noise ratio?

A. Because your system is operating in a mixed-signal environment (i.e., analog and digital), the grounding scheme is critical. You probably know that-because digital circuitry is noisy-analog and digital grounds should be kept separate, joined at only one point. This connection is usually made at the power supply. In fact, if the analog and digital devices are powered from a common supply, as might be the case in a +5 V or +3.3 V single-supply system, there is no choice but to connect the grounds back at the supply. But the data sheet for the converter probably has an instruction to connect the pins AGND and DGND at the device! So how can one avoid creating a ground loop that can result if the grounds are connected in two places?

The figure below shows how to resolve this apparent dilemma. The key is that the AGND and DGND labels on the converter's pins refer to the parts of the converter to which those pins are connected. The device as a whole should be treated as analog. So after the AGND and DGND pins have been connected together, there should be a single connection to the system's analog ground. True, this will cause the converter's digital currents to flow in the analog ground plane, but this is generally a lesser evil than exposing the converter's DGND pin to a noisy digital ground plane. This example also shows a digital buffer, referred to digital ground, to isolate the converter's serial data pins from a noisy serial bus. If the converter is making a point-to-point connection to a micro, this buffer may be unnecessary.

Figure 4

The figure also shows how to deal with the increasingly common challenge of powering a mixed-signal system with a single power supply. As in the grounding case, we run separate power lines (preferably power planes) to the analog and digital portions of the circuit. We treat the digital power pin of the converter as analog. But some isolation from the analog power pin, in the form of an inductor, is appropriate. Remember that both power pins of the converter should have separate decoupling capacitors. The data sheet will recommend appropriate capacitors, but a good rule of thumb is 0.1 µF. If space permits, a single 10-µF capacitor per device should also be included.

Q. I want to design an isolated serial interface between an ADC and a microcontroller using opto-isolators. What should I be aware of when using these devices?

A. Optoisolators (also known as opto-couplers) can be used to create a simple and inexpensive high-voltage isolation barrier. The presence of a galvanic isolation barrier between converter and micro also means that analog and digital system grounds no longer need to be connected. As shown in the figure, an isolated serial interface between the AD7714 precision ADC and the popular 68HC11 microcontroller can be implemented with as few as three optoisolators.

Figure 5

The designer should be aware, though, that the use of optoisolators having relatively slow rise and fall times with CMOS converters can cause problems, even when the serial communication is running at a slow speed.

CMOS logic inputs are designed to be driven by a definite logic zero or logic one. In these states, they source and sink a minimal amount of current. However, when the input voltage is in transition between logic zero and logic one (0.8 V to 2.0 V), the gate will consume an increased amount of current. If the opto-isolators used have relatively slow rise and fall times, the excessive amount of time spent in the dead-band will cause self-heating in the gate. This self-heating tends to shift the threshold voltage of the logic gate upwards, which can lead to a single clock edge being interpreted by the converter as multiple clock pulses. To prevent this threshold jitter, the lines coming from the optoisolators should be buffered using Schmitt trigger circuits, to deliver fast, sharp edges to the converter.


Eamon Nash

Eamon Nash

Eamon Nash is an applications engineering director at Analog Devices. He has worked at ADI in various field and factory roles covering mixed-signal, precision, and RF products. He is currently focused on RF amplifiers and beamformer products for satellite communications and radar. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.) degree in electronics from University of Limerick, Ireland and five patents.