Shunt Resistor

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Chapter 5 - Resistor Applications

Definition 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.

Shunt Resistor for Current Measuring

A device to measure electric current is called an ammeter. Most modern ammeters measure the voltage drop over a precision resistor with a known resistance. The current flow is calculated by using Ohm’s law:

$$I = \frac{V}{R} $$

Most ammeters have an built-in 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 between the shunt resistor and the ammeter, such that only a small (known) percentage flows through the ammeter. The rest of the current bypasses the ammeter and flows through the shunt resistor. In this way, large currents can still be measured. By correctly scaling the ammeter, the actual amperage can be 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 ammeter resistance value, cannot be higher than the voltage rating. Also, the ammeter resistance value should be as low as possible to limit the interference with the circuit. However, a smaller ammeter produces a smaller voltage drop, resulting in a lower resolution.

Example of calculation

As an example, a shunt resistor with a resistance of 1 mΩ is used as the series resistor in an ammeter. The resistor is placed in a circuit, and a voltage drop of 30 mV 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 Measuring Current

Position of shunt resistor in the circuit for current measurement A. 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 resistor in the circuit. When the circuit shares a common ground with the measurement device, the shunt is often placed 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 leakage currents that bypass the shunt might not be detected. If 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, including using a Hall Effect sensor to avoid connecting the measurement instrument directly with the high voltage circuit. However, current shunts are commonly more affordable.

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 100 A and 50 mV has a resistance of 50 / 100 = 0.5 mΩ. 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 Joule's law. Shunt resistors usually have 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. Above 80 °C, thermal drift starts. This gets worse with rising temperature, and above 140 °C the resistor may be damaged, and the resistance value may be permanently changed.

What is a Shunt in Electronics?

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

One method to protect a circuit from too high of a voltage is the use of 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 immediately causes 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.


Safety Checks When Making a Resistance Measurement

1. Before connecting the ohmmeter leads, turn off the power in the circuit.
2. When connecting the leads to a DC current or voltage, make sure the plus and minus are chosen correctly.
3. Adjust the meter to the right settings (AC, DC, ohms etc.)
4. Is the range of the meter high enough for the test circuit?
5a. If measuring current or voltage, turn on power and inspect the meter value. 5b. Don't switch on power if you are measuring resistance.
6. Switch off the power and then remove the test leads from the circuit.
7. If you measured current, reconnect the circuit as appropriate.