Electronic – Why are op amps used so frequently in analog electronics


I've read in several books and papers the observation: "Op amps are the bread-and-butter of analog electronics", or "… op amps are the most commonly encountered building block in analog circuits …" and to that effect.

Although my experience is not broad enough either to concur or to refute that claim, it's certainly borne out in the circuits I have seen.

It makes me think I'm missing something fundamental, to explain why a component like this would be perhaps something like a "for" loop in programming or something, a fundamental pattern, that once available, finds pervasive application.

What is it about the fundamental nature of analog electronics that makes an op amp the fulfillment of such a basic and versatile pattern?

Best Answer

Op amps are pretty close to being ideal differential amplifiers. So the real question is, what's so great about amplifiers? There are (at least!) three answers.

First, the obvious -- amplifiers let you change the amplitude of a signal. If you have a small signal (say, from a transducer), an amplifier lets you raise its voltage to a useful level. Amplifiers can also reduce the amplitude of a signal, which could be useful to fit it into the range of an ADC, for example.

Amplifiers can also buffer a signal. They present a high impedance on the input side and a low impedance on the output side. This allows a weak source signal to be delivered to a heavy load.

Finally, negative feedback allows amplifiers to filter a signal. So-called active filters (which use amplifiers) are much more flexible and powerful than passive filters (which use only resistors, capacitors, and inductors). I should also mention oscillators, which are made using amplifiers with filtered positive feedback.

Amplitude control, buffering, and filtering are three of the most common things you can do to analog signals. More generally, amplifiers can be used to implement many kinds of transfer functions, which are the basic mathematical descriptions of signal processing tasks. Thus, amplifiers are all over the place.

Why op amps in particular? As I said, op amps are essentially high-quality amplifiers. Their key characteristics are:

  • Very high differential gain (sometimes as high as 1,000,000!)
  • Very high input impedance (teraohms at low-frequency for FET-input op amps)
  • Very high common-mode rejection ratio (typically >1000)

These characteristics mean that the behavior of the amplifier is almost entirely determined by the feedback circuit. Feedback is done with passive components like resistors, which are much better-behaved than transistors. Try simulating a simple common emitter amplifier across voltage and temperature -- it's not great.

With modern improvements in integrated circuits, op amps are cheap, high-performance, and readily available. Unless you need extreme performance (high power, very high frequency) there's not much reason to go with discrete transistor amplifiers anymore.