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What is shunt resistor?

Jan 27, 2018

What is Shunt Resistor?

A shunt resistor is used to measure electric current, alternating or direct. This is done by measuring the voltage drop across the resistor.

Most ammeters have an inbuilt resistor to measure the current. However, when the current is too high for the ammeter, a different setup is required. The solution is to place the ammeter in parallel with an accurate shunt resistor.  Another term that is sometimes used for this type of resistor is ammeter shunt.Usually this is a high precision manganin resistor with a low resistance value. The current is divided over the shunt and the ammeter, such that only a small (known) percentage flows through the ammeter.  In this way, large currents can still be measured. By correctly scaling the ammeter, the actual amperage can be directly measured. Using this configuration, in theory the maximum amperage that can be measured is endless. However, the voltage rating of the measurement device must not be exceeded. This means that the maximum current multiplied by the resistance value, cannot be higher than the voltage rating. Also, the resistance value should be as low as possible to limit the interference with the circuit. On the contrary, the resolution gets smaller the smaller the resistance and thus the voltage drop is.

Example of calculation
As an example a shunt resistor is used with a resistance of 1 mOhm. The resistor is placed in a circuit, and a voltage drop of 30 millivolts is measured across the resistor. This means that the current is equal to the voltage divided over the resistance, or: I = V / R = 0.030 / 0.001 = 30 A. The same calculation could be made, but now with the resistance value unknown and the voltage and current known. This is used to calibrate shunt resistance.

Position of the shunt in the circuit for current measuring

. Often the shunt is placed in the grounded side to eliminate the common mode voltage. However, other disadvantages exist.
B. In this configuration, the common mode voltage could be too high for the ammeter.

It is important to carefully choose the position of the shunt in the circuit. When the circuit shares a common ground with the measurement device, often is chosen to place the shunt as close to the ground as possible. The reason is to protect the ammeter from the common mode voltage that might be too high and damage the device or give erroneous results. A disadvantage from this set up is that leakages that bypass the shunt might not be detected. In case the shunt is placed in the ungrounded leg, it must be isolated from the ground or include a voltage divider or an isolation amplifier to protect the instrument. Other ways are possible to not connect the measurement instrument directly with the high voltage circuit, such as using the Hall Effect. However, current shunts are commonly more affordable and cheaper.

Specifying a shunt resistor

Several parameters are important to specify a shunt resistor. Shunt resistors have a maximum current rating. The resistance value is given by the voltage drop at the maximum current rating. For example, a shunt resistor rated with 100A and 50mV has a resistance of 50 / 100 = 0.5 mOhm. The voltage drop at maximum current is typically rated 50, 75 or 100 mV.

Other important parameters include the resistance tolerance, the temperature coefficient of resistance and the power rating. The power rating indicates the amount of electric power that the resistor can dissipate at a given ambient temperature without damaging or changing the resistor parameters. The produced power can be calculated with Joules law. Shunt resistors have usually a derating factor of 66 percent for continuous operation. This is defined for a run time longer than two minutes. High temperatures negatively influence the accuracy of the shunt. From 80 degrees Celsius thermal drift starts. This gets worse with rising temperature, and from 140 degrees the resistor will damage and the resistance value be permanently changed.

What is a shunt in electronics?

In this article is focused on shunt resistors, with the primary purpose to measure current.  However, the meaning of the term shunt in electronics is broader than that. A shunt is an element that is used in a circuit to redirect current around another part. The areas of application vary widely. For some applications, electrical devices other than resistors can be used. A few examples are given to illustrate the diversity of shunts.

Protecting a circuit against overvoltage
A method to protect a circuit from a too high voltage is using a crowbar circuit. When the voltage gets too high, a device will short circuit. This results in the current flowing parallel to the circuit. This causes immediately a voltage drop in the circuit. The high current through the shunt should trigger a circuit breaker or a fuse.

Bypassing a defective device
When one element in a series circuit fails, it will break the complete circuit. A shunt can be used to overcome this problem. The higher voltage that exists due to the failure will cause the shunt to short out. The electricity will pass around the defective element. A good example of this is Christmas lighting.

Bypass electrical noise
Shunts with a capacitor are sometimes applied in circuits where high-frequency noise is a problem. Before the undesired signal reaches the circuit elements, the capacitor redirect the noise to the ground.