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Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) Effects on Measurement Equipment – ESD Effects on Oscilloscopes

When debugging designs or making electrical measurements of noise, especially ESD, we often assume the only equipment in the room that works perfectly is our measurement equipment. This assumption can be wrong and when it is, the bad data that results can add significantly to the time needed to get to the cause of a design problem. Examples of ESD interference to oscilloscopes are described and one innovative approach to minimizing EMI induced error is shown.

Figure 1 shows an attempt to measure a waveform associated with an ESD event using a high bandwidth analog scope many years ago. Almost every engineer or technician trying to make such a measurement in that time frame obtained a plot like Figure 1. The plot was taken using a 1 GHz bandwidth Tektronix 7104 analog scope with a camera mounted on the scope to capture the waveform. The 7104 was the last of the analog scopes in general use just before digital scopes became fast enough to take over most lab measurements.


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Figure 1: Example of ESD Induced Error in an Analog Oscilloscope

In the plot of Figure 1, time appears to go backwards! What really happened was that the very strong fields generated by the ESD simulator interacted directly with the electron beam in the oscilloscope, overriding what the scope deflection systems were trying to do. The result drove the electron beam all over the screen, resulting in the strange waveform in the figure. People quickly learned to put these scopes in a Faraday Cage when making ESD measurements. The Faraday Cage shielded the scope from the ESD generated fields, and the desired waveform was obtained.

These days we use digital scopes with solid state displays that don’t use electron beams the way analog scopes did, but it is still possible to get EMI induced error in scope measurements. One example can be seen in my Technical Tidbit article September 2004, Mobile Phone Response to EMI from Small Metal ESD. One of the figures from that article is reproduced in Figure 2.

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Figure 2: Example of ESD Induced Error in a Digital Oscilloscope
(Vertical scale = 5 Volts/div, Horizontal scale = 5 ns/div)

The plot in Figure 2 was the voltage induced into a small dipole antenna tuned to about 1800 MHz in response to jingling coins in a plastic bag. The desired signal is the tall spike in the middle of the plot. But notice the “hash” noise starting about 10 ns before the spike. This noise traveled over the direct path through the air from the ESD events into the scope electronics. The hash starts earlier because the propagation time is faster for the air path than through several feet of coax cable the desired signal had to travel through. To fix this and similar problems one can use a Faraday Cage around the scope or simply move the scope further away from the source of the EMI, jingling coins in this case.

Figure 3 shows one solution by a friend of mine, Jon Barth of Barth Electronics in Boulder City, NV, to the problem of ESD interference to his scope and PC while trying to measure the calibration waveform of an ESD simulator. ESD noise was getting into the connection between his PC and the scope, making data acquisition nearly impossible. The copper tape and aluminum foil shield did the job for him and is much simpler to implement quickly than a Faraday Cage.

Figure 3: Makeshift Shield to Prevent ESD Induced Measurement Error


EMI can manifest itself in other ways as well including crosstalk between scope channels when trying to measure a high amplitude signal and a small one on different channels at the same time. I have even seen, back in the early 1990s, a scope change its state because its control circuits were not immune to the effects of ESD. The results of this problem were quite evident though so there is little danger of bad data from this cause.

The effects of EMI on analog and
digital scopes are quite different, but in both cases, significant measurement error can occur if care is not taken.
Don’t assume your measurement equipment is working perfectly, especially around ESD. Be on the lookout for error creeping into your measurements.

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author smith-doug Douglas C. Smith
Mr. Smith held an FCC First Class Radiotelephone license by age 16 and a General Class amateur radio license at age 12. He received a B.E.E.E. degree from Vanderbilt University in 1969 and an M.S.E.E. degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1970. In 1970, he joined AT&T Bell Laboratories as a Member of Technical Staff. He retired in 1996 as a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff. From February 1996 to April 2000 he was Manager of EMC Development and Test at Auspex Systems in Santa Clara, CA. Mr. Smith currently is an independent consultant specializing in high frequency measurements, circuit/system design and verification, switching power supply noise and specifications, EMC, and immunity to transient noise. He is a Senior Member of the IEEE and a former member of the IEEE EMC Society Board of Directors.His technical interests include high frequency effects in electronic circuits, including topics such as Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC), Electrostatic Discharge (ESD), Electrical Fast Transients (EFT), and other forms of pulsed electromagnetic interference. He also has been involved with FCC Part 68 testing and design, telephone system analog and digital design, IC design, and computer simulation of circuits. He has been granted over 15 patents, several on measurement apparatus.

Mr. Smith has lectured at Oxford University, The University of California Santa Barbara, The University of California Berkeley, Vanderbilt University, AT&T Bell Labs, and internationally at many public and private seminars on high frequency measurements, circuit design, ESD, and EMC. He is author of the book High Frequency Measurements and Noise in Electronic Circuits. His very popular website, (, draws many thousands of visitors each month to see over 150 technical articles as well as other features.

He also provides consulting services in general design, EMC, and transient immunity (such as ESD and EFT), and switching power supply noise. His specialty is solving difficult problems quickly, usually within a couple of days. His work has included digital and analog circuits in everything from large diesel powered machinery to IC chip level circuits. His large client base includes many well known large electronic and industrial companies as well as medium sized companies and start-up companies.

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