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Voltage Comparator

Parts and Materials

  • Operational amplifier, model 1458 or 353 recommended (Radio Shack catalog # 276-038 and 900-6298, respectively)
  • Three 6 volt batteries
  • Two 10 kΩ potentiometers, linear taper (Radio Shack catalog # 271-1715)
  • One light-emitting diode (Radio Shack catalog # 276-026 or equivalent)
  • One 330 Ω resistor
  • One 470 Ω resistor

This experiment only requires a single operational amplifier. The model 1458 and 353 are both "dual" op-amp units, with two complete amplifier circuits housed in the same 8-pin DIP package. I recommend that you purchase and use "dual" op-amps over "single" op-amps even if a project only requires one, because they are more versatile (the same op-amp unit can function in projects requiring only one amplifier as well as in projects requiring two). In the interest of purchasing and stocking the least number of components for your home laboratory, this makes sense.


Lessons In Electric Circuits, Volume 3, chapter 8: "Operational Amplifiers"

Learning Objectives

  • How to use an op-amp as a comparator

Schematic Diagram



A comparator circuit compares two voltage signals and determines which one is greater. The result of this comparison is indicated by the output voltage: if the op-amp's output is saturated in the positive direction, the noninverting input (+) is a greater, or more positive, voltage than the inverting input (-), all voltages measured with respect to ground. If the op-amp's voltage is near the negative supply voltage (in this case, 0 volts, or ground potential), it means the inverting input (-) has a greater voltage applied to it than the noninverting input (+).

This behavior is much easier understood by experimenting with a comparator circuit than it is by reading someone's verbal description of it. In this experiment, two potentiometers supply variable voltages to be compared by the op-amp. The output status of the op-amp is indicated visually by the LED. By adjusting the two potentiometers and observing the LED, one can easily comprehend the function of a comparator circuit.

For greater insight into this circuit's operation, you might want to connect a pair of voltmeters to the op-amp input terminals (both voltmeters referenced to ground) so that both input voltages may be numerically compared with each other, these meter indications compared to the LED status:

Comparator circuits are widely used to compare physical measurements, provided those physical variables can be translated into voltage signals. For instance, if a small generator were attached to an anemometer wheel to produce a voltage proportional to wind speed, that wind speed signal could be compared with a "set-point" voltage and compared by an op-amp to drive a high wind speed alarm:

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 January 18, 2010

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