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Microwave Amplifier Design Overview

Key Takeaways

  • To ensure optimal performance, microwave amplifiers require careful consideration of design parameters such as gain, noise figure, linearity, efficiency, and stability.

  • Transistor devices like Si BJTs, GaAs or SiGe HBTs, Si MOSFETs, GaAs MESFETs, and GaAs or GaN HEMTs have become the primary choice for contemporary RF and microwave amplifier design, each offering unique advantages and properties.

  • Understanding the essentials—S-parameters, available power gain, and transducer gain—allows engineers to optimize their performance and stability while considering trade-offs like bandwidth and matching.

Microwave Amplifier design with input and output matching networks

Microwave Amplifier design with input and output matching networks

Microwave amplifiers enable the transmission and reception of signals across vast distances with high fidelity. These amplifiers are essential for various applications, including satellite communications, wireless networks, and radar systems. 

General Amplifier Design Considerations



Frequency Band

Amplifiers must operate within a specified frequency band, accommodating the desired range of frequencies.


Measures signal amplification; high gain is vital for effectively boosting weak signals.

Noise Figure

Quantifies noise introduction; lower noise figures are preferred, especially in sensitive applications.


Crucial for signal integrity, non-linear amplification can lead to distortion and signal degradation.


Critical for power consumption, heat generation, and cost; essential for mobile and battery-powered devices.


Ensures the absence of oscillations and unwanted signals, crucial for reliable system performance.

Microwave Amplifier Design Transistor Types

In contemporary RF and microwave amplifier design, transistor devices have taken precedence. There is now a wide variety of transistors for designers to choose from, all with unique properties and advantages. 

  • Silicon bipolar junction transistors (Si BJTs) 

  • Silicon metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors (Si MOSFETs)

  • Gallium arsenide (GaAs) or silicon germanium (SiGe) heterojunction bipolar transistors (HBTs)

  • Gallium arsenide metal-semiconductor field-effect transistors (GaAs MESFETs)

  • Gallium arsenide or gallium nitride high-electron-mobility transistors (GaAs or GaN HEMTs). 

Microwave Amplifier Design Essential Parameters

When designing an amplifier, it is important to do sufficient simulations and analysis before manufacturing. For this reason, it is crucial to understand the s-parameters, available power gain, and transducer gain of the amplifier.

  • S-parameters, short for scattering parameters,  describe the behavior of linear electrical networks in terms of signal reflection and transmission at different ports. They provide valuable insights into how a device interacts with external components and are used to characterize the performance of amplifiers, filters, and other microwave components.

  • Available power gain, on the other hand, quantifies the amplification capability of a device, considering both the input and output power levels. It represents the ratio of the available output power to the available input power. Available power gain takes into account losses within the device itself.

  • Transducer gain, sometimes referred to as power gain, is a measure of how much power a device can transfer from its input to its output, including losses in the device itself. It accounts for both the available power gain and the power lost within the device. Transducer gain is particularly important when evaluating the overall efficiency of a system, as it considers losses caused by mismatches between components and provides a comprehensive view of signal amplification in a practical circuit context.

Stability and Stability Circles in Microwave Amplifier Design

Stability is a fundamental consideration in microwave amplifier design. An unstable amplifier can lead to unwanted oscillations, signal distortion, and even component damage. Stability circles, a graphical representation of the stability of an amplifier, are invaluable tools for ensuring that the amplifier operates reliably without oscillations or instability.

Stability Criteria

Microwave amplifiers must meet certain stability criteria to prevent oscillations. The most well-known criterion is the K-factor, which evaluates the amplifier's stability based on the input and output reflection coefficients (S-parameters). An amplifier is considered unconditionally stable if the K-factor is less than one. If the K-factor exceeds one, the amplifier can become unstable under certain conditions, such as load mismatches or changes in operating frequency.

Stability Circles

Stability circles are a graphical representation of an amplifier's stability conditions. These charts plot the reflection coefficients on a polar plot, helping designers visualize the stability of the amplifier across a range of frequencies and load conditions. By analyzing stability circles, engineers can determine the regions in which the amplifier remains stable and design matching networks to ensure stability across the desired operating range.

Designing for Stability

To design a stable microwave amplifier, engineers must carefully consider the placement of matching networks, component values, and the amplifier's operating conditions. Stability circles aid in this process by allowing designers to identify and avoid instability regions. Additionally, feedback networks, such as resistive and capacitive elements, can further enhance stability by introducing controlled levels of negative feedback.

Instability Example

Let's delve into the essential prerequisites for ensuring the stability of a transistor amplifier. The potential for oscillation arises when the input or output port impedance exhibits a negative real component. This situation is indicated by |Γin| > 1 or |Γout| > 1. (Gamma, Γ,  being the reflection coefficient). The stability of the amplifier hinges on the characteristics of the source and load-matching networks, respectively. Consequently, we can establish two distinct categories of stability:

  • Unconditional Stability: An amplifier network is deemed unconditionally stable if, for all passive source and load impedances, |Γin| < 1 and |Γout| < 1 hold true. In simpler terms, it remains stable across a wide range of impedance conditions.

  • Conditional Stability: Conversely, conditional stability arises when |Γin| < 1 and |Γout| < 1 are satisfied within a specific range of passive source and load impedances. This situation is also referred to as potentially unstable, as it suggests that the amplifier's stability depends on particular impedance configurations.

The stability of an amplifier circuit is often frequency-dependent because the input and output matching networks are typically influenced by the operating frequency. Therefore, while an amplifier may exhibit stability at its intended design frequency, it might behave differently at other frequencies. 

Matching Networks

In microwave amplifiers, impedance matching is paramount. For maximum power transfer, it is essential to have the source impedance match the load impedance. When the source and load impedances are matched, it minimizes signal reflection at the interfaces and maximizes the power delivered to the load

A single-stage transistor amplifier operating at microwave frequencies can be effectively represented through the circuit illustrated above. This configuration incorporates matching networks on both the input and output sides of the transistor, serving the crucial purpose of converting the inherent impedance Z0 into the corresponding source impedance ZS and load impedance ZL. In the context of amplifier design, one of the most pertinent and practical metrics is the transducer power gain, as discussed earlier. This particular gain measurement holds significance because it comprehensively considers the impact of mismatched impedance conditions at the input (source) and output (load), providing a holistic assessment of the amplifier's performance under real-world operating scenarios.

Broadband Transistor Amplifier Design

The ideal amplifier maintains consistent gain and excellent input matching across the desired frequency bandwidth. However, practical considerations often lead to trade-offs in achieving these objectives. Being able to achieve maximum gain through conjugate matching is typically limited to a relatively narrow bandwidth. On the other hand, designing for less than maximum gain can improve the gain bandwidth but results in poor input and output port matching. These challenges arise mainly because microwave transistors are typically not well matched to a standard 50-ohm impedance. Additionally, |S21| decreases with frequency at a rate of 6 dB/octave. Given these factors, designing broadband amplifiers requires special consideration, often involving compromises in terms of gain, complexity, or other factors. Some common approaches to address this problem include:

  • Compensated Matching Networks: Input and output matching sections can be designed to compensate for the gain rolloff in |S21|, but this often comes at the expense of input and output matching.

  • Resistive Matching Networks: Good input and output matching can be achieved using resistive matching networks, but this results in a loss of gain and an increase in noise figure.

  • Negative Feedback: Employing negative feedback can flatten the gain response of the transistor, improve input and output matching, and enhance device stability. This method allows for amplifier bandwidths exceeding a decade but at the cost of gain and noise figure.

  • Balanced Amplifiers: Using two amplifiers with 90-degree couplers at their input and output can provide excellent matching over an octave bandwidth or more. However, the overall gain is equivalent to that of a single amplifier, and the design necessitates two transistors and twice the DC power.

  • Distributed Amplifiers: Cascading several transistors along a transmission line can offer good gain, matching, and noise figure over a broad bandwidth. Nonetheless, this approach results in a relatively large circuit and doesn't achieve as much gain as a cascade amplifier with the same number of stages.

  • Differential Amplifiers: Utilizing two devices in a differential mode, with input signals of opposite polarity, effectively places the device capacitance in series, roughly doubling the cutoff frequency (fT). Differential amplifiers can also provide a larger output voltage swing compared to a single device and offer common mode noise rejection.

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