[time-nuts] Time interval counters

Dr Bruce Griffiths bruce.griffiths at xtra.co.nz
Tue Sep 26 06:34:30 EDT 2006

   Hal Murray wrote:

Suitable TDC chips are available from [1]http://www.acam.de/  [2]<http://
www.acam.de/> In particular the TDC-GP1 has a resolution of better
than 250picosec  with a range of 200 millisec, which should be more
than adequate for  measuring the time delay between GPS and local
standard derived PPS  pulses.

Although these chips are a little pricey at around the 100 euro mark
they are a lot cheaper than an Agilent/HP 53131 or its equivalent.

Has anybody tried kludging something together without using expensive parts?

I'm guessing that the general idea is something like an R/C feeding an ADC.
Hold the R/C reset until time1, then let it start charging up.  At time2,
shut the door on a sample/hold that's probably built into the front end of an
ADC.  Then wait until things calm down and read the ADC.

If I start with a 10 MHz clock, that's 100 ns.  An 8 bit ADC gives a span of
2.5 clocks for a resolution of 1 ns.  Lots of handwaving here.

A 1 ns resolution needs an ADC or S/H with an input bandwidth in the ballpark
of a GHz.  My quick scan for a cheap/fast ADC didn't find anything
interesting.  So this is probably a wild goose chase.

I wonder if it is reasonable to calibrate a slower ADC.  The input signal
will be stable.

Digikey has the TI TLC5540 at under $6.  It says 75 MHz input bandwidth but
30 ps aperature jitter.  (That's just the first one I looked at.  There are
probably better ones.)

   Suitable sample and holds are a little hard to come by these days.
   One traditional method of building a time to amplitude converter (TAC)
   is to use a bipolar transistor longtailed pair to charge an intially
   discharged capacitor for the duration of the short time to be
   measured/interpolated. An ADC then samples the capacitor voltage which
   is proportional to the capacitor charging time. With a modern
   capacitive charge redistribution ADC like the AD7450  there is no need
   for a buffer amplifier as the ADC input appears like a capacitor
   during the sampling phase. It is necessary is to allow the ADC input
   to settle after the longtailed pair is switched off, before beginning
   the ADC conversion cycle. Once the ADC conversion is complete the
   capacitor can be discharged by turning on a shunt small signal MOSFET.
   A long tailed pair using a pair of small signal RF transistors will
   switch the output current from one collector to the other in less than
   a nanosecond if suitably high cutoff frequency fast low capacitance
   transistors are transistors are used The collector current is at most
   a few hundred pA (at room temperature)when the transistor is turned
   off. A resolution of a around 250 picoseconds is possible with an
   interpolator range of 1microsec when a 12 bit ADC like the AD7450 is
   used. The long tailed pair switching time is limited by the emitter to
   emitter inductance when discrete transistors are used, an integrated
   pair with the emitters connected together on chip will switch faster
   than a discrete pair. The ADC need not have a particularly low jitter
   or fast acquisition time as the capacitor voltage is stable when
   sampling is complete. It is essential to use a low dielectric
   absorption capacitor such as a ceramic capacitor with a C0G/NP0
   dielectric, although the low duty cycle in this application when
   making 1-2 measurements per second relaxes this requirement somewhat.
   Another traditional time interval interpolation technique is the
   Wilkinson technique where instead of sampling the capacitor voltage,
   the capacitor is discharged by a curreent say 1/1000 of the charge
   current, a comparator monitors the capacitor voltage an a counter
   measures the time for which the capacitor voltage is non zero. The
   conversion gain is only dependent on the ratio of the two current
   sources with a 10mA charge current and a 1uA discharge current a
   timing resolution of 10 picosec can be achieved with a 10MHz rundown
   clock. A fast low input bias current comparator with a latched output
   should be used to preserve the sensitivity and linearity of the
   conversion. The comparator is lached on for most of the rundown clock
   period and its input polarity is sampled only for a short time on say
   the falling edge of the rundown clock. The comparator output state is
   sampled half a rundown clock cycle later by a following D flipflop.
   This technique precludes the possibility of comparator oscillation due
   to input outpuut feedback (it only takes a fraction of a pF of stray
   capacitance to cause this with a high speed comparator). Using
   hysteresis, whilst avoiding oscillation, decreases the resolution of
   the comparator. A comparator resolution of less than 100uV is readily
   achieved with a suitable comparator. The output of the D flip flop is
   used to gate the interpolation counter. Alternatively the flipflop
   transitions can be used to sample a continuously running counter. At
   the end of the conversion cycle a MOSFET discharges the capacitor.
   This technique can take a millisecond or more to complete the rundown
   cycle. However this isn't an issue when making 1 measurement a second.
   To avoid the problem (at least with discrete components) of rapidly
   switching on the 1uA rundown current source it can on all the time,
   producing a stable initial capacitor voltage  of a few tens of
   With a traditional time interval counter 2 interpolators are required
   one for the stop channel and one for the start channel. If a free
   running counter is clocked by the reference frequency then it can be
   sampled by the output of a PPS synchroniser and a single interpolation
   circuit is required to measure the input to output delay of the
   synchroniser. The resultant sequence of time stamps can be analysed to
   derive the equivalent time interval counter measurements.
   Another possibility is to just use a large resistor connected to a
   stable voltage to discharge the capacitor, this avoids the difficulty
   of building a suitable 1uA current source using discrete components.
   The charge-discharge is non linear but this is easily measured and/or
   calculated from the known component values. The nonlinearity can then
   easily be corrected by a microprocessor.
   It is also possible to use a pair of opamps configured as a high gain
   integrator whose feedback capacitance is ramped up and down. Resistors
   can then be used to define the runup and rundown currents with
   series/shunt small signal mosfets connected to the integrator summing
   junction to steer the currents either into the summing junction or to
   ground. Again the discharge current source (resistor) can be connected
   directly to the summing junction and a small signal MOSFET is used to
   discharge the integrator feedback capacitor. With the correct topology
   a pair of relatively slow opamps (<50 MHz) can be used with high
   accuracy. 1/3 of a 74HC4053 can be used to implement the series shunt
   current steering switch.


   1. http://www.acam.de/
   2. http://www.acam.de/

More information about the time-nuts mailing list