The ebook FEEE - Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering and Electronics is based on material originally written by T.R. Kuphaldt and various co-authors. For more information please read the copyright pages.

Nykquist Frequency

Another important consideration of ADC circuitry is its sample frequency, or conversion rate. This is simply the speed at which the converter outputs a new binary number. Like resolution, this consideration is linked to the specific application of the ADC. If the converter is being used to measure slow-changing signals such as level in a water storage tank, it could probably have a very slow sample frequency and still perform adequately. Conversely, if it is being used to digitize an audio frequency signal cycling at several thousand times per second, the converter needs to be considerably faster.

Consider the following illustration of ADC conversion rate versus signal type, typical of a successive-approximation ADC with regular sample intervals:

Here, for this slow-changing signal, the sample rate is more than adequate to capture its general trend. But consider this example with the same sample time:

When the sample period is too long (too slow), substantial details of the analog signal will be missed. Notice how, especially in the latter portions of the analog signal, the digital output utterly fails to reproduce the true shape. Even in the first section of the analog waveform, the digital reproduction deviates substantially from the true shape of the wave.

Nyquist frequency Frequency, Nyquist

It is imperative that an ADC's sample time is fast enough to capture essential changes in the analog waveform. In data acquisition terminology, the highest-frequency waveform that an ADC can theoretically capture is the so-called Nyquist frequency, equal to one-half of the ADC's sample frequency. Therefore, if an ADC circuit has a sample frequency of 5000 Hz, the highest-frequency waveform it can successfully resolve will be the Nyquist frequency of 2500 Hz.

Aliasing, ADC

If an ADC is subjected to an analog input signal whose frequency exceeds the Nyquist frequency for that ADC, the converter will output a digitized signal of falsely low frequency. This phenomenon is known as aliasing. Observe the following illustration to see how aliasing occurs:

Note how the period of the output waveform is much longer (slower) than that of the input waveform, and how the two waveform shapes aren't even similar:

It should be understood that the Nyquist frequency is an absolute maximum frequency limit for an ADC, and does not represent the highest practical frequency measurable. To be safe, one shouldn't expect an ADC to successfully resolve any frequency greater than one-fifth to one-tenth of its sample frequency.

Hint: There's an interactive simulation available on the "Learning by Simulations" Web site which shows the effects of different sample frequencies.

A practical means of preventing aliasing is to place a low-pass filter before the input of the ADC, to block any signal frequencies greater than the practical limit. This way, the ADC circuitry will be prevented from seeing any excessive frequencies and thus will not try to digitize them. It is generally considered better that such frequencies go unconverted than to have them be "aliased" and appear in the output as false signals.

Last Update: 2010-11-19