Oscillators: What Are They? (Definition, Types, & Applications)

What is an Oscillator?

An oscillator is a circuit which produces a continuous, repeated, alternating waveform without any input. Oscillators basically convert unidirectional current flow from a DC source into an alternating waveform which is of the desired frequency, as decided by its circuit components.

The basic principle behind the working of oscillators can be understood by analyzing the behavior of an LC tank circuit shown in Figure 1 below, which employs an inductor L and a completely pre-charged capacitor C as its components. Here, at first, the capacitor starts to discharge via the inductor, which results in the conversion of its electrical energy into the electromagnetic field, which can be stored in the inductor. Once the capacitor discharges completely, there will be no current flow in the circuit.

What is an Oscillator

However, by then, the stored electromagnetic field would have generated a back-emf which results in the flow of current through the circuit in the same direction as that of before. This current flow through the circuit continues until the electromagnetic field collapses which result in the back-conversion of electromagnetic energy into electrical form, causing the cycle to repeat. However, now the capacitor would have charged with the opposite polarity, due to which one gets an oscillating waveform as the output.

However, the oscillations which arise due to the inter-conversion between the two energy-forms cannot continue forever as they would be subjected to the effect of energy loss due to the resistance of the circuit. As a result, the amplitude of these oscillations decreases steadily to become zero, which makes them damped in nature.

This indicates that in order to obtain the oscillations which are continuous and of constant amplitude, one needs to compensate for the energy loss. Nevertheless, it is to be noted that the energy supplied should be precisely controlled and must be equal to that of the energy lost in order to obtain the oscillations with constant amplitude.

This is because, if the energy supplied is more than the energy lost, then the amplitude of the oscillations will increase (Figure 2a) leading to a distorted output; while if the energy supplied is less than the energy lost, then the amplitude of the oscillations will decrease (Figure 2b) leading to unsustainable oscillations.

Types of Oscillator

Practically, the oscillators are nothing but the amplifier circuits which are provided with a positive or regenerative feedback wherein a part of the output signal is fed back to the input (Figure 3). Here the amplifier consists of an amplifying active element which can be a transistor or an Op-Amp and the back-fed in-phase signal is held responsible to keep-up (sustain) the oscillations by making-up for the losses in the circuit.

Application of Oscillator

Once the power supply is switched ON, the oscillations will be initiated in the system due to the electronic noise present in it. This noise signal travels around the loop, gets amplified and converges to a single frequency sine wave very quickly. The expression for the closed-loop gain of the oscillator shown in Figure 3 is given as:

Oscillator Equation

Where A is the voltage gain of the amplifier and β is the gain of the feedback network. Here, if Aβ > 1, then the oscillations will increase in amplitude (Figure 2a); while if Aβ < 1, then the oscillations will be damped (Figure 2b). On the other hand, Aβ = 1 leads to the oscillations which are of constant amplitude (Figure 2c). In other words, this indicates that if the feedback loop gain is small, then the oscillation dies-out, while if the gain of the feedback loop is large, then the output will be distorted; and only if the gain of feedback is unity, then the oscillations will be of constant amplitude leading to self-sustained oscillatory circuit.

Type of Oscillator

There are many types of oscillators, but can broadly be classified into two main categories – Harmonic Oscillators (also known as Linear Oscillators) and Relaxation Oscillators.

In a harmonic oscillator, the energy flow is always from the active components to the passive components and the frequency of oscillations is decided by the feedback path.

Whereas in a relaxation oscillator, the energy is exchanged between the active and the passive components and the frequency of oscillations is determined by the charging and discharging time-constants involved in the process. Further, harmonic oscillators produce low-distorted sine-wave outputs while the relaxation oscillators generate non-sinusoidal (saw-tooth, triangular or square) wave-forms.

The main types of Oscillators include:

Oscillators can be also be classified into various types depending on the parameter considered i.e. based on the feedback mechanism, the shape of the output waveform, etc.. These classifications types have been given below:

  1. Classification Based on the Feedback Mechanism: Positive Feedback Oscillators and Negative Feedback Oscillators.
  2. Classification Based on the Shape of the Output Waveform: Sine Wave Oscillators, Square or Rectangular Wave oscillators, Sweep Oscillators (which produce saw-tooth output waveform), etc.
  3. Classification Based on the Frequency of the Output Signal: Low-Frequency Oscillators, Audio Oscillators (whose output frequency is of audio range), Radio Frequency Oscillators, High-Frequency Oscillators, Very High-Frequency Oscillators, Ultra High-Frequency Oscillators, etc.
  4. Classification Based on the type of the Frequency Control Used: RC Oscillators, LC Oscillators, Crystal Oscillators (which use a quartz crystal to result in a frequency stabilized output waveform), etc.
  5. Classification Based on the Nature of the Frequency of Output Waveform: Fixed Frequency Oscillators and Variable or Tunable Frequency Oscillators.

Oscillator Applications

Oscillators are a cheap and easy way to generate specific Frequency of a signal. For example, an RC oscillator is used to generate a Low Frequency signal, an LC oscillator is used to generate a High Frequency signal, and an Op-Amp based oscillator is used to generate a stable frequency.

The frequency of oscillation can be varied by varying the component value with potentiometer arrangements.

Some common applications of oscillators include:

  • Quartz watches (which uses a crystal oscillator)
  • Used in various audio systems and video systems
  • Used in various radio, TV, and other communication devices
  • Used in computers, metal detectors, stun guns, inverters, ultrasonic and radio frequency applications.
  • Used to generate clock pulses for microprocessors and micro-controllers
  • Used in alarms and buzzes
  • Used in metal detectors, stun guns, inverters, and ultrasonic
  • Used to operate decorative lights (e.g. dancing lights)
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