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The Common-emitter Amplifier

At the beginning of this chapter we saw how transistors could be used as switches, operating in either their “saturation” or “cutoff” modes. In the last section we saw how transistors behave within their “active” modes, between the far limits of saturation and cutoff. Because transistors are able to control current in an analog (infinitely divisible) fashion, they find use as amplifiers for analog signals.

One of the simpler transistor amplifier circuits to study previously illustrated the transistor's switching ability. (Figure below)

NPN transistor
NPN transistor as a simple switch.

It is called the common-emitter configuration because (ignoring the power supply battery) both the signal source and the load share the emitter lead as a common connection point shown in Figure below. This is not the only way in which a transistor may be used as an amplifier, as we will see in later sections of this chapter.

Common-emitter amplifier
Common-emitter amplifier: The input and output signals both share a connection to the emitter.

Before, a small solar cell current saturated a transistor, illuminating a lamp. Knowing now that transistors are able to “throttle” their collector currents according to the amount of base current supplied by an input signal source, we should see that the brightness of the lamp in this circuit is controllable by the solar cell's light exposure. When there is just a little light shone on the solar cell, the lamp will glow dimly. The lamp's brightness will steadily increase as more light falls on the solar cell.

Suppose that we were interested in using the solar cell as a light intensity instrument. We want to measure the intensity of incident light with the solar cell by using its output current to drive a meter movement. It is possible to directly connect a meter movement to a solar cell (Figure below) for this purpose. In fact, the simplest light-exposure meters for photography work are designed like this.

High intensity light
High intensity light directly drives light meter.

Although this approach might work for moderate light intensity measurements, it would not work as well for low light intensity measurements. Because the solar cell has to supply the meter movement's power needs, the system is necessarily limited in its sensitivity. Supposing that our need here is to measure very low-level light intensities, we are pressed to find another solution.

Perhaps the most direct solution to this measurement problem is to use a transistor (Figure below) to amplify the solar cell's current so that more meter deflection may be obtained for less incident light.

Cell current
Cell current must be amplified for low intensity light.

Current through the meter movement in this circuit will be β times the solar cell current. With a transistor β of 100, this represents a substantial increase in measurement sensitivity. It is prudent to point out that the additional power to move the meter needle comes from the battery on the far right of the circuit, not the solar cell itself. All the solar cell's current does is control battery current to the meter to provide a greater meter reading than the solar cell could provide unaided.

Because the transistor is a current-regulating device, and because meter movement indications are based on the current through the movement coil, meter indication in this circuit should depend only on the current from the solar cell, not on the amount of voltage provided by the battery. This means the accuracy of the circuit will be independent of battery condition, a significant feature! All that is required of the battery is a certain minimum voltage and current output ability to drive the meter full-scale.

Another way in which the common-emitter configuration may be used is to produce an output voltage derived from the input signal, rather than a specific output current. Let's replace the meter movement with a plain resistor and measure voltage between collector and emitter in Figure below.

Common emitter amplifier
Common emitter amplifier develops voltage output due to current through load resistor.

With the solar cell darkened (no current), the transistor will be in cutoff mode and behave as an open switch between collector and emitter. This will produce maximum voltage drop between collector and emitter for maximum Voutput, equal to the full voltage of the battery.

At full power (maximum light exposure), the solar cell will drive the transistor into saturation mode, making it behave like a closed switch between collector and emitter. The result will be minimum voltage drop between collector and emitter, or almost zero output voltage. In actuality, a saturated transistor can never achieve zero voltage drop between collector and emitter because of the two PN junctions through which collector current must travel. However, this “collector-emitter saturation voltage” will be fairly low, around several tenths of a volt, depending on the specific transistor used.

For light exposure levels somewhere between zero and maximum solar cell output, the transistor will be in its active mode, and the output voltage will be somewhere between zero and full battery voltage. An important quality to note here about the common-emitter configuration is that the output voltage is inverted with respect to the input signal. That is, the output voltage decreases as the input signal increases. For this reason, the common-emitter amplifier configuration is referred to as an inverting amplifier.

A quick SPICE simulation (Figure below) of the circuit in Figure below will verify our qualitative conclusions about this amplifier circuit.

Common emitter schematic
Common emitter schematic with node numbers and corresponding SPICE netlist.
Common emitter
Common emitter: collector voltage output vs base current input.

At the beginning of the simulation in Figure above where the current source (solar cell) is outputting zero current, the transistor is in cutoff mode and the full 15 volts from the battery is shown at the amplifier output (between nodes 2 and 0). As the solar cell's current begins to increase, the output voltage proportionally decreases, until the transistor reaches saturation at 30 µA of base current (3 mA of collector current). Notice how the output voltage trace on the graph is perfectly linear (1 volt steps from 15 volts to 1 volt) until the point of saturation, where it never quite reaches zero. This is the effect mentioned earlier, where a saturated transistor can never achieve exactly zero voltage drop between collector and emitter due to internal junction effects. What we do see is a sharp output voltage decrease from 1 volt to 0.2261 volts as the input current increases from 28 µA to 30 µA, and then a continuing decrease in output voltage from then on (albeit in progressively smaller steps). The lowest the output voltage ever gets in this simulation is 0.1299 volts, asymptotically approaching zero.

So far, we've seen the transistor used as an amplifier for DC signals. In the solar cell light meter example, we were interested in amplifying the DC output of the solar cell to drive a DC meter movement, or to produce a DC output voltage. However, this is not the only way in which a transistor may be employed as an amplifier. Often an AC amplifier for amplifying alternating current and voltage signals is desired. One common application of this is in audio electronics (radios, televisions, and public-address systems). Earlier, we saw an example of the audio output of a tuning fork activating a transistor switch. (Figure below) Let's see if we can modify that circuit to send power to a speaker rather than to a lamp in Figure below.

Transistor switch activated by audio
Transistor switch activated by audio.

In the original circuit, a full-wave bridge rectifier was used to convert the microphone's AC output signal into a DC voltage to drive the input of the transistor. All we cared about here was turning the lamp on with a sound signal from the microphone, and this arrangement sufficed for that purpose. But now we want to actually reproduce the AC signal and drive a speaker. This means we cannot rectify the microphone's output anymore, because we need undistorted AC signal to drive the transistor! Let's remove the bridge rectifier and replace the lamp with a speaker:

Common emitter amplifier drives speaker
Common emitter amplifier drives speaker with audio frequency signal.

Since the microphone may produce voltages exceeding the forward voltage drop of the base-emitter PN (diode) junction, I've placed a resistor in series with the microphone. Let's simulate the circuit in Figure below with SPICE. The netlist is included in (Figure below).

SPICE version of common emitter audio amplifier
SPICE version of common emitter audio amplifier.
Signal clipped at collector due
Signal clipped at collector due to lack of DC base bias.

The simulation plots (Figure above) both the input voltage (an AC signal of 1.5 volt peak amplitude and 2000 Hz frequency) and the current through the 15 volt battery, which is the same as the current through the speaker. What we see here is a full AC sine wave alternating in both positive and negative directions, and a half-wave output current waveform that only pulses in one direction. If we were actually driving a speaker with this waveform, the sound produced would be horribly distorted.

What's wrong with the circuit? Why won't it faithfully reproduce the entire AC waveform from the microphone? The answer to this question is found by close inspection of the transistor diode current source model in Figure below.

The model shows that base current flow
The model shows that base current flow in one direction.

Collector current is controlled, or regulated, through the constant-current mechanism according to the pace set by the current through the base-emitter diode. Note that both current paths through the transistor are monodirectional: one way only! Despite our intent to use the transistor to amplify an AC signal, it is essentially a DC device, capable of handling currents in a single direction. We may apply an AC voltage input signal between the base and emitter, but electrons cannot flow in that circuit during the part of the cycle that reverse-biases the base-emitter diode junction. Therefore, the transistor will remain in cutoff mode throughout that portion of the cycle. It will “turn on” in its active mode only when the input voltage is of the correct polarity to forward-bias the base-emitter diode, and only when that voltage is sufficiently high to overcome the diode's forward voltage drop. Remember that bipolar transistors are current-controlled devices: they regulate collector current based on the existence of base-to-emitter current, not base-to-emitter voltage.

The only way we can get the transistor to reproduce the entire waveform as current through the speaker is to keep the transistor in its active mode the entire time. This means we must maintain current through the base during the entire input waveform cycle. Consequently, the base-emitter diode junction must be kept forward-biased at all times. Fortunately, this can be accomplished with a DC bias voltage added to the input signal. By connecting a sufficient DC voltage in series with the AC signal source, forward-bias can be maintained at all points throughout the wave cycle. (Figure below)

V(bias) keeps transistor in the active region
V(bias) keeps transistor in the active region.
Undistorted output current I(v(1) due to Vbias
Undistorted output current I(v(1) due to Vbias
biased upward at base
Input is biased upward at base. Output is inverted.
output voltage across
V(3), the output voltage across rspkr, compared to the input.
Increasing rspkr to 30 Ω increases the output voltage
Increasing rspkr to 30 Ω increases the output voltage.
Common-emitter amplifier
Common-emitter amplifier shows a voltage gain with Rspkr=30Ω
PNP version of common emitter amplifier
PNP version of common emitter amplifier.


Lessons In Electric Circuits copyright (C) 2000-2020 Tony R. Kuphaldt, under the terms and conditions of the CC BY License.

See the Design Science License (Appendix 3) for details regarding copying and distribution.

Revised November 06, 2021

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