AD MS-2234

Technical Article
Anatomy of a Digital Isolator
by David Krakauer, Product Line Manager,
Analog Devices, Inc.
Digital isolators offer significant, compelling advantages
over optocouplers in terms of size, speed, power
consumption, ease of use, and reliability.
or years, designers of industrial, medical, and other
isolated systems had limited options when
implementing safety isolation: the only reasonable
choice was the optocoupler. Today, digital isolators offer
advantages in performance, size, cost, power efficiency, and
integration. Understanding the nature and interdependence
of three key elements of a digital isolator is important in
choosing the right digital isolator. These elements are
insulation material, their structure, and data transfer
Designers incorporate isolation because of safety regulations
or to reduce noise from ground loops, etc. Galvanic isolation
ensures data transfer without an electrical connection or
leakage path that might create a safety hazard. Yet, isolation
imposes constraints such as delays, power consumption,
cost, and size. A digital isolator’s goal is to meet safety
requirements while minimizing incurred penalties.
Optocouplers, a traditional isolator, incur the greatest
penalties, consuming high levels of power and limiting data
rates to below 1 Mbps. More power efficient and higher
speed optocouplers are available but impose a higher cost
Digital isolators were introduced over 10 years ago to reduce
penalties associated with optocouplers. They use CMOSbased circuitry and offer significant cost and power savings
while significantly improving data rates. They are defined by
the elements noted above. Insulating material determines
inherent isolation capability and is selected to ensure
compliance to safety standards. Structure and data transfer
method are chosen to overcome the cited penalties. All three
elements must work together to balance design targets, but
the one target that cannot be compromised and “balanced”
is the ability to meet safety regulations.
Insulation Material
Digital isolators use foundry CMOS processes and are
limited to materials commonly used in foundries.
Nonstandard materials complicate production, resulting in
poor manufacturability and higher costs. Common
insulating materials include polymers such as polyimide
(PI), which can be spun on as a thin film, and silicon dioxide
(SiO2). Both have well known insulating properties and have
been used in standard semiconductor processing for years.
Polymers have been the basis for many optocouplers, giving
them an established history as a high voltage insulator.
Figure 1. Transformer with Thick Polyimide Insulation Where Current Pulses Create Magnetic Fields to Induce Current on the Secondary Coil (left);
Capacitor with Thin SiO2 Insulation Using Low Current Electric Fields to Couple Across Isolation Barrier (right)
October 2011 | Page 1 of 3
©2011 Analog Devices, Inc. All rights reserved.
Technical Article
Table 1. Polymer/Polyimide-Based Isolators Yield the Best Isolation Properties
Polyimide-Based Digital
SiO2-Based Digital Isolator
Withstand Voltage (1 Minute)
7.5 kV rms
5 kV rms
5 kV rms
Lifetime at 400 V rms Working Voltage
25 years
50 years
25 years
Surge Level for Reinforced Insulation
20 kV
12 kV
7 kV
Distance Through the Insulation
(Insulation Thickness)
400 µm
14 µm to 26 µm
7 µm to 15 µm
Safety standards typically specify a 1 minute voltage
withstand rating (typically 2.5 kV rms to 5 kV rms) and
working voltage (typically 125 V rms to 400 V rms). Some
standards also specify shorter duration, higher voltage (e.g.,
10 kV peak for 50 µs) as part of certification for reinforced
insulation. Polymer/polyimide-based isolators yield the best
isolation properties, as shown in Table 1.
Polyimide-based digital isolators are similar to optocouplers
and exceed lifetime at typical working voltages. SiO2-based
isolators provide weaker protection against surges,
preventing use in medical and other applications.
The inherent stress of each film is also different. Polyimide
has lower stress than SiO2 and can increase in thickness as
needed. SiO2 thickness, and therefore isolation capability, is
limited; stress beyond 15 µm may result in cracked wafers
during processing or delamination over the life of the
isolator. Polyimide-based digital isolators use isolation layers
as thick as 26 µm.
Isolator Structure
Digital isolators use transformers or capacitors to
magnetically or capacitively couple data across an isolation
barrier, compared to optocouplers that use light from LEDs.
Transformers pulse current through a coil, as shown in
Figure 1, to create a small, localized magnetic field that
induces current in another coil. The current pulses are short,
1 ns, so the average current is low.
Transformers are also differential and provide excellent
common-mode transient immunity, as high as 100 kV/µs
(optocouplers are typically about 15 kV/µs). Magnetic
coupling also has a weaker dependence on the distance
between the transformer coils compared with the
dependence for capacitive coupling on the distance between
plates. This allows for thicker insulation between
transformer coils resulting in higher isolation capability.
Combined with low stress polyimide films, high levels of
isolation may be achieved for transformers using polyimide
vs. capacitors using SiO2.
©2011 Analog Devices, Inc. All rights reserved.
Capacitors are also single-ended and have higher
susceptibility to common-mode transients. Differential pairs
of capacitors can compensate, but this increases size and cost.
One benefit of capacitors is that they use low currents to
create the coupling electric field. This becomes noticeable at
high data rates, above 25 Mbps.
Data Transmission Methods
Optocouplers use light from LEDs to transmit data across an
isolation barrier: the LED turns on for logic HIGH and off
for logic LOW. While the LED is on, the optocoupler burns
power making optocouplers a poor choice wherever power
consumption is a concern. Most optocouplers leave the
signal conditioning at the input and/or output to the
designer, which is not always the easiest to implement.
Digital isolators use more advanced circuitry to encode and
decode data allowing for more rapid data transmission and
the ability to handle complex, bidirectional interfaces such as
USB and I2C.
One method encodes rising and falling edges as double or
single pulses that drive a transformer (Figure 2). These
pulses are decoded back into rising/falling edges on the
secondary side. This reduces power consumption by 10× to
100× compared to optocouplers because power is not
continuously applied as with optocouplers. Refresh circuits
can be included to regularly update the dc level.
Another method uses RF modulated signals in much the
same way that optocouplers use light; logic HIGH signal
results in continuous RF transmission. This consumes more
power than the pulsed method because logic HIGH signals
continuously burn power.
Differential techniques may also be employed for commonmode rejection; however, these are best used with
differential elements such as transformers.
October 2011 | Page 2 of 3
Technical Article
Figure 2. One Method for Transferring Data Encodes Edges as Single or Double Pulses
Choosing the Right Combination
Digital isolators offer significant, compelling advantages
over optocouplers in terms of size, speed, power
consumption, ease of use, and reliability. Within the class of
digital isolators, different combinations of insulating
material, structure, and data transfer method distinguish
different products making some more or less suitable to
particular applications. As noted above, polymer-based
materials offer the most robust isolation capability; this
material can be used in almost all applications, but the most
stringent, such as healthcare and heavy industrial
equipment, will gain the most advantage. To achieve the
most robust isolation, polyimide thickness may be increased
beyond what is reasonable for capacitors; therefore,
capacitor-based isolation may be best suited for functional
isolation where safety isolation is not required. In those
cases, transformer-based isolation may make the most sense,
especially when combined with a differential data transfer
method that takes full advantage of the differential nature of
For more information on digital isolators, visit
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October 2011 | Page 3 of 3
©2011 Analog Devices, Inc. All rights reserved.