Bad Circuit Design 10 - Low Power Design: Not Understanding Mismatch


Consider the current mirror seen below that is biased with a 10 nA current source. While the reliable

generation of this 10 nA current using a self-biased reference is a topic of bad design discussion by itself

we wonít focus on that here (see page 635). Rather, letís focus on the current mirror action. Ideally, M1ís

drain current is a constant 10 nA; however, because of the gate tunnel current (see page 475) from M2

the drain current of M1 increases with larger Vo. This also isnít the topic of this bad design discussion.

Neither is the finite output resistance of M2 resulting in the increase in M2ís drain current with Vo (up to

27 nA). Rather letís talk about what happens if M1/M2 arenít matched (donít have the same electrical

characteristics even though they are the same size; they wonít be matched in a real processÖ.yes, they

will be matched in SPICE so beware!).


The gate-source voltage of M1 and M2 is around 75 mV so the devices are operating in the subthreshold

region. Remember (page 150) that the drain current in this region is exponentially dependent on the

gate-source voltage. So, what happens when we have a modest 25 mV mismatch in the threshold voltages

between M1 and M2 (below)? M2 moves towards shutting off. If the other mismatches (geometry,

mobility, etc.) are included along with the full range of threshold voltage mismatches itís very possible

for M2 to remain off even though M1 is conducting current.


Perhaps this isnít clear enough, in some mirrors M2 will be off (M1 will not be off if a current is forced

through it). Matching, and slow speed, are fundamental, practical, problems with designing low power

analog circuits that operate in the subthreshold region.


Below shows the current that flows in M2 with its gate grounded (M2 is ďoff,Ē there isnít any current

mirror action). It should be clear that trying to mirror < 1 nA of current is questionable (see comments

below about increasing the devicesí gate-source voltage).


Before leaving this topic letís show one more example of bad design, below. The PMOS device, M3, is

used to ensure that the voltage across the photodiode stays constant (to keep from ďde-biasingĒ the

diode). Mismatches in the characteristics of M3, say a threshold voltage mismatch, simple change the

voltage across the diode (which, given that the changes are tens of mV, is rarely a concern).


The circuit operates, ideally, as follows. Reset_i goes low to pre-charge the integration cap. When

Reset_i goes high the diodeís current is mirrored and discharges the integration capacitor. Larger currents

(more light) will cause the capacitor to discharge faster (the integration time, the time between driving

Reset_i high and looking at the voltage across the integration capacitor, is called the aperture time). We

may only get pA of current from the photodiode. However, in any case, this circuit isnít practical.


This one, below, will work fine with mismatches (though the Reset is now active high and the integration

capacitor is charged instead of discharged by the photo-generated current). It is also a lower noise design.

Unfortunately, as discussed on pages 1146-1147, M3 will leak a gate tunneling current onto the integration

capacitance resulting in error (so, as discussed on these pages, make sure M3 is as small as possible).


Note that by increasing the gate-source voltage of a current mirror operating with these small currents the

operation is moved out of the subthreshold region and the chance that M2 shuts off because of mismatch

is reduced (see also page 616). This increase in gate-source voltage (overdrive voltage) is accomplished

by (significantly) increasing the length of the devices (of course decreasing the width also helps).

Unfortunately, besides the hit on layout area, this increase in area will also result in an increase in the

gate tunnel current in nanometer CMOS (so, if possible, use older CMOS technology to design low power

analog circuits in the subthreshold region).


In simple terms if a design has current mirrors that mirror pA or a few nA of current be skeptical, be very

skeptical, because the design is likely a bad design.