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Reflection Attenuators: an Overview

Key Takeaways

  • Reflection attenuators serve the dual purpose of reducing signal power to appropriate levels for receivers and impedance matching between the source and load while maintaining signal waveform integrity.

  • Reflection attenuators come in various types, including fixed, variable, digital step, and FET attenuators – each offering specific features.

  • Reflection attenuators often face challenges like elevated Voltage Standing Wave Ratio (VSWR) and phase imbalances, making their design complex, and necessitating careful selection of components.

Radio frequency reflection attenuator

Radio frequency reflection attenuator for reducing high power signal levels

An attenuator is the intermediary circuit block connecting a signal source and the load. Attenuators reduce the signal’s power while maintaining the integrity of its waveform. Attenuators play an additional role in impedance matching between the input source and the load.

A practical application of an attenuator is to decrease the signal's amplitude to a specified level, facilitating accurate measurements and safeguarding measurement instruments from potentially harmful signal intensities.

A reflection attenuator employs both absorption and reflection methods to decrease the power of a signal. In this process, it not only lessens the signal strength but also sends a portion of the input power back towards the source. The degree of signal attenuation directly influences how much power is reflected. In the realm of RF (Radio Frequency) applications, attenuators are typically comprised of a straightforward resistor network.

Reflection Attenuator Types

Type of Reflection Attenuator


Key Features

Fixed Reflection Attenuators

Attenuators with a constant attenuation level

Simple design, used for stable signal reduction

Variable Reflection Attenuators

Attenuation levels can be adjusted manually

Ideal for varying signal levels, offers fine-tuning

Digital Step Attenuators (DSA)

Provides attenuation in discrete steps, digitally controlled

High precision and repeatability, used in precise applications

PIN Diode Attenuators

Uses PIN diodes to vary attenuation level

Fast switching, used in electronic warfare and radar systems

FET Attenuators

Utilizes Field-Effect Transistors for attenuation

Good linearity, minimizes distortion

Resistive Attenuators

Employs resistors to absorb and reflect signal power

Simple, reliable, high power handling, non-adjustable

Reflection Phase Shift Attenuators

Attenuates signals and introduces a phase shift

Used in phased array antennas and where phase control is important

A General Overview of Reflection Attenuators 

Attenuators, which are essentially passive circuits, function to diminish the signal strength from a source to a level that is appropriate for the receiving end. The source in question could be a transmitter circuit or a transmission line, while the destination might be another transmission line or an antenna.

Digital vs. Variable Reflection Attenuators 

Reflection attenuators can be of two types: continuously variable or digital with multiple discrete states. They are frequently used as variable phase shifters. The specific type of coupler they incorporate determines their capabilities, such as providing an octave bandwidth. 

With precise engineering, these attenuators can achieve a consistent response, known as a phase invariant response.  "Phase invariant" implies that the transmission angle (angle S21) remains relatively stable regardless of the level of attenuation. A quality benchmark for these devices could be an attenuator providing a 10 dB range with only a 10-degree phase shift.

Reflection Attenuator Impedance

In terms of impedance, these devices typically have matching input and output impedances, with the characteristic impedance often being 50 ohms, referred to as Z0. The attenuation level of these devices is usually quantified in terms of loss, for example, a 20dB loss. Alternatively, they can be described by their voltage rating. For instance, a 10x attenuator (such as on an oscilloscope probe) reduces the voltage by a factor of ten, which corresponds to a 20dB loss in terms of signal strength.

Attenuators are typically characterized by positive numerical values, which paradoxically represent the degree of signal loss they introduce. This positive number directly indicates the extent to which the signal's strength is reduced.

Reflective vs. Non-Reflective

In reflective-type attenuators, a significant issue arises due to elevated VSWR (Voltage Standing Wave Ratio), which isn't as prevalent in absorptive (non-reflective) attenuators. Consequently, designers often opt for non-reflective attenuators. 

Four-Port Quadrature Couplers as Reflection Attenuators

Some reflection attenuators can utilize a four-port quadrature coupler – that splits an input signal into two output signals 90 degrees out of phase. For this reason, it requires two matched terminations on the coupled and through ports. These terminations must have at least a partially real impedance for effective operation.  Here's a simplified explanation:

  1. The input RF signal is fed into the coupler.
  2. The signal is split into two paths with a 90-degree phase shift.
  3. One path is usually directed to a load (like a resistor), where it's absorbed (and hence attenuated).
  4. The other path can be manipulated or further processed as needed.
  5. The way these two paths interact (one being absorbed and the other being manipulated) results in the overall attenuation of the signal.

Four-Port Quadrature Coupler Topology: Coupled Lines

The coupled line coupler (pair of closely spaced transmission lines that interact electromagnetically) is an ideal choice for a quadrature coupler. In practical applications, its optimal form is manifested in stripline designs, though a highly effective version can also be achieved on microstrips using the Lange topology. A key advantage of the coupled-line coupler is its inherent ability to ensure that the phase difference between the two divided ports is automatically set at 90 degrees.

Four-Port Quadrature Coupler Topology: Branchline Coupler

A branchline coupler consists of two parallel transmission lines connected by perpendicular branches, arranged in a specific geometrical pattern, allowing the input signal split into two output signals 90 degrees out of phase. However, in reflection attenuators, the additional reflections can disrupt this phase accuracy, leading to phase imbalances in the system, and due to their limited bandwidth, it is generally recommended to avoid them as reflection attenuators. 

Cadence AWR Software and Signal Integrity

As we delve into the world of reflection attenuators, it's clear how crucial they are in maintaining signal integrity and optimizing communication systems. For designers looking to master this intricate field, Cadence AWR Software emerges as a powerful ally. With its advanced simulation capabilities, Cadence AWR allows you to seamlessly model and analyze critical systems in your RF designs. Whether you're working on reducing signal interferences in high-frequency applications or ensuring precision, Cadence AWR provides the tools you need to innovate and excel.

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