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Noise Fundamentals

P.A. Bennett, R.V. Chamberlin; PHY465

 Johnson-Nyquist (white) noise; Shot noise; flicker (1/f) noise, Noise units (V or I per Hz-1);
Frequency filters (low-pass and high-pass); Amplifier gain G(f); Noise bandwidth; Noise
spectral density S(f); Kelvin temperature scale.

Background Reading
 Circuit Fundamentals: Melissinos 3.1-3.5 or equivalent
 Johnson Noise: Melissinos 3.6 or equivalent
 Noise Fundamentals: Teachspin manual

Special Equipment and Skills

Oscilloscope; LabView interface; High-pass and low-pass filters.

Background and Theory

In this project, you will characterize fundamental sources of low-frequency electronic
noise. There are three main types of low-frequency noise: Johnson-Nyquist (white) noise, Shot
noise, and 1/f noise. These correspond to intrinsic statistical fluctuations of voltage or current
which occur with any measurement of electronic signals, and they present a fundamental limit to
the accuracy of any such measurement. It is often possible to design experiments that operate at,
or near, the fundamental limits imposed by the noise. Measuring these noise limits are within the
grasp of undergraduate students, but requires a thorough understanding of the principles involved,
as explored in this project. One often encounters electronic noise in the practical realm, such as
"white noise" in audio, radio or (analog) TV signals. Similar concepts and limitations apply to
these "signals" as well.
The main source of noise to be measured in this laboratory comes from thermal
fluctuations. This thermal noise was first measured by Johnson (Phys. Rev. 32, 97 (1928)), and
explained by Nyquist (Phys. Rev. 32, 110 (1928)). This noise exhibits a spectrum that has equal
amplitude at all frequencies, which is often generically called “white” noise. More specifically,
measurements and theories showing standard white noise are often called Johnson-Nyquist noise.
Consider a resistor R in thermal equilibrium at temperature T. The average voltage across
R is zero, but the instantaneous voltage is not zero due to conduction electrons that are constantly
moving back and forth. Nyquist showed that the corresponding voltage fluctuations are given by

VR2 / R  4kT /   4kT f . (Johnson Noise) (1)

Here <> is the average over the time interval , or equivalently over the frequency range f.
Equation (1) is written in units of power, to emphasize the statistical notion of the equipartition of
energy for a system in thermal equilibrium.
Most measurements involve an amplifying system, with frequency-dependent voltage-gain
g(f). The amplified power is then given as

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/ R  4kT  g 2 ( f )df 4kTG 2 f . (2)

Here, we have defined an effective frequency width

g2( f )
f   df , (3)

where G is a dimensionless constant representing the overall voltage gain at mid frequency.
The "root-mean-square" Johnson noise is given by

 Vrms  G  4kTR   f 
1/ 2 1/ 2
. (4)

From the "electronics viewpoint," we can consider that the resistor is a noise generator with output
(4kTR)1/2. Note the units of Volt per Hz1/2. The spectral density is flat (independent of frequency),
which is called "white noise" (all colors present, equally). Note that the amplifying system may
also contribute noise. Such amplifier noise, which has the same units (V/Hz1/2), may come from
the resistors, transistors, and other elements in the amplifier circuits. The resulting signal is given

V 2  (VR  VG )2  VR2  VG2  2VRVG   VR2  VG2 . (5)

Note that the cross-product 2VRVG vanishes in the average since the two signals are usually
uncorrelated. An amplifier system often contains multiple stages, each with frequency-dependent
gain gi(f). The overall gain is given by

G( f )  g1 ( f ) g2 ( f )...gm ( f ) . (6)

Typically, the amplifier noise, if any, is dominated by the first stage, since the signal is boosted by
each gain stage. In this project you will verify the functional scaling of <V2> with R, f and T, and,
with careful absolute measurements of G and f, yield a value for the Boltzmann constant k.
A second fundamental source of noise is called “shot noise.” This corresponds to statistical
fluctuations in the flow of current due to the quantization of charge (in units of e = 1.6x10-19C).
Thus, an average current flow i0 corresponds to N charges per unit time , as
i0  Ne . (7)

For uncorrelated flow, the current fluctuations follow Poisson statistics as
N  N . (8)
Combining equations 4 and 5, we have current fluctuations given by
 i 2  i0e  2i0ef , (Shot noise)
 (9)

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where we included the bandwidth definition f = 1/(2). As an example, for i0 = 10 A, and f =
100 kHz, we have i = 0.6 nA. Unless the resistance R0, this shot noise is much smaller than the
Johnson-Nyquist source of white noise.

Setup for Instrument

Johnson noise:
The main goals of this experiment are to verify the Nyquist formula for Johnson noise:
VR  4kTRf , and to obtain an experimental value for Boltzmann’s constant. You will first

measure various resistors at room temperature, with various filters that focus on the central part of
the spectrum. You will then use data acquisition software to obtain fluctuations over long times,
and convert the time-dependent fluctuations into frequency-dependent power-spectral densities
over a broad range of frequencies.

I. Johnson noise integrated over fixed bandwidths (Teach Spin, chapter 1)

1) Verify that the “Low-level Electronics” (metal case) is attached to the “High-level Electronics”
(wood case) via the “Preamp Power Output.” Turn on the electronics (switch on the power strip).
Note that there is no switch on the noise electronics, so be sure to turn off the power strip when
2) Start with “Preamplifier” (metal case) settings as follows: input resistor Rin=100 kΩ; feedback
resistor Rf=1 kΩ; and feedback capacitor (Cf) at min (not used). Note that the input resistor (which
is the source of noise that you measure) is attached to the positive input of an amplifier, see Fig.
1.1a, reproduced below. The feedback resistor is connected from the output of the amplifier to its
negative input, with a resistor of 200 Ω connected from this negative input to ground. Thus, this
amplifier gives an amplification of (Rf+200)/200=6. Another preamplifier gives an additional
amplification of 100, so that the total amplification in the metal case is 100x(Rf+200)/Rf = 600.

3) Make sure the High-Level Electronics is connected as shown in Fig. 1.2a, below. For the first
set of measurements, use mid-rage settings for the filters, with corner frequencies of 0.1 kHz for
the High-pass filter and 10 kHz for the Low-pass filter. It is recommended that you use 0.3 s for
the Output “Time Constant,” so that voltage changes can be readily tracked.

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4) Adjust the “Gain” values (two x1 or x10 and one “Fine Adjust”) until the “Output” voltage is
near to full scale on the 2 V “Meter Scale.” Observe the output on channel 1 of the oscilloscope.
Note the saturation of the voltages when the output exceeds ±10 V. This saturation reduces the
thermal noise from the resistor, and should be avoided. Reduce the “Gain” values until the Output
is slightly below 1 V. Keep the Output between 0.5-1 V (or so) for all quantitative measurements
to avoid significant saturation. Now look at the “Multiplier” output on channel 2. Why does this
output seem to saturate only at the lowest voltage? Hint: what is this lowest voltage and what does
the Multiplier do?
5) Quantitative Measurements of Johnson Noise. Record the Digital Voltmeter (DMM) output
several (6-12) times to obtain an accurate mean-squared output voltage V 2 , and its uncertainty.
It may be useful to reduce the number of digits shown on the DMM to 3 or 4, which slows down
the rate at which the digits change, eliminates irrelevant resolution, and makes it easier to record
the numbers. Consider recording the numbers directly into an Excel file, to save time later when
they are analyzed.
6) Preliminary Calculation of Boltzmann’s Constant. Use Eq. (2) to calculate a test value of
Boltzmann’s constant, and to ensure that you understand all factors. Note the connection between
the measured mean-squared voltage and its value across the resistor, which can be written as
VR2  10 V 2 / G 2 . Here the pre-factor comes from the “Multiplier” that squares the voltage, but
reduces the amplitude by a factor of 10, while G comes from the pre-amp gain [100x(Rf+200)/Rf]
multiplied by the product of all factors from the Gain settings [two coarse settings (x1 or x10) and
the Fine Adjust]. Your preliminary value should be within a factor of two from k=1.38x10–23 J/K.
Be sure to use room temperature in Kelvin, and f from Table 1.5 (below) for the bandwidth.
7) Dependence of Noise on Resistance. Repeat step 5) for all other values of the input resistor,
Rin=1, 10, 100, 1k, 10k, and 1M Ω. Be sure to adjust the Gain to keep the Output voltage between
0.5-1 V, and keep track of these multipliers. For your report, you will use these measurements of
noise as a function of resistance to deduce the background amplifier noise, and obtain a more-
accurate value of Boltzmann’s constant.

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8) Dependence of Noise on Bandwidth. Repeat steps 5 and 7 for two other settings of the filters.
Be sure to include the widest available bandwidth (10 Hz for the High Pass and 100 kHz for the
Low Pass), and a narrower bandwidth (e.g. 1 kHz on both the High Pass and Low Pass). In the end
you should have noise measurements on all seven resistors for at least three different filter settings.

II. Power Spectral density (PSD) of Johnson noise (using LabVIEW)

1) Return to the settings from section I part 5: Rin=100 kΩ; 0.1 kHz and 10 kHz filter settings.
2) If not already connected, attach Gain OUT to MyDAQ AI0, and Multiplier Monitor to MyDAQ
3) Start the computer and logon using your ASU ID and password. Load LabVIEW Virtual
Instrument (VI): White Noise.VI or 1_f Noise.VI. Start data acquisition with a left-click on the
arrow near the upper left corner. Average the signal for many sweeps (100-300). Click and hold
“Restart Averaging” only if you want to erase unwanted data without stopping the program.
4) Click “stop (F)” to stop and record the spectrum. (Click the red hexagon (stop sign) only to stop
without saving data.) Be sure to rename files to avoid overwrite. The resulting ASCII file has two
columns of numbers, one for each of the upper graphs shown on the screen. The first column is
most useful, giving the power spectral density over the relevant frequency range. Frequencies for
this column are given by the row number of the data point, in Hz (row 1=1 Hz, row 2=2 Hz, etc.).
5) Power spectral densities. Acquire a representative set of PSDs for several values of the input
resistor, and for each set of filter settings that you used in part I. Be sure to include the endpoint
resistance values (Rin=1 Ω and 1 MΩ), the next largest resistance value (Rin=100 kΩ), and at least
one resistance in-between.
6) Interpreting a PSD. The PSD is proportional to the amount of power from voltage fluctuations
at a given frequency, per unit frequency. The most prominent feature you should see is a central
plateau between the frequencies of the filters, with reduced spectral density at higher and lower
frequencies. The level plateau is indicative of white noise, while the reductions come from the
filters. Do the 3 dB points match what you expect?
7) Deviations from white noise. Over the broadest frequency range, some seemingly anomalous
features may appear at very low and/or very high frequencies. For Rin=1 Ω there may be a slight
rise in the PSD at the lowest frequencies, due to the 1/f-like behavior that dominates amplifier
noise below 100 Hz. For Rin=1 MΩ there may be a significant drop in the PSD at the highest
frequencies, due to limited bandwidth of the pre-amplifier for large input resistances.

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Thermal Noise: specific requirements

Figure 1, Power Spectral Density with Filters. (30 points) Graph of power spectral density (in
dB) as a function of frequency (on a logarithmic scale) from at least two sets of data. Choose one
set from each bandwidth that you studied except the widest frequency range (10 Hz to 100 kHz).
Show fits to your data over the appropriate frequency range using the expected filter function from
𝑓 4
𝐴( )
Pg. 2-11 in the Teachspin manual 𝑆(𝑑𝐵) = 10 ∗ log [⁡ 𝑓 4 𝑓 4
(1+( ) )∗(1+( ) )
In the caption: Briefly (1-3 sentences) describe the physical mechanism for the features you
observe in the power spectral density. Give the values that you obtain for the fit parameters from
each graph, with their uncertainties. Briefly (1-3 sentences total) describe the physical meaning of
each parameter.

Figure 2, Power Spectral Density over Wide Frequencies. (20 points) Graph of power spectral
density (in dB) as a function of frequency (on a logarithmic scale) from three sets of data using the
maximum filter range, 10 Hz to 100 kHz. Choose one set of data for three different input resistors
(Rin): the smallest (1 Ω), the largest (1 MΩ), and one in-between.
In the caption: Briefly (1-3 sentences) describe the features that you observe. Include the physical
mechanism for any unusual features, such as an increase in noise with decreasing frequency at low
frequencies for the smallest resistor, and a decrease in noise with increasing frequency at high
frequencies for the largest resistor.

Figure 3, Experimental Determination of Boltzmann’s Constant. (30 points) Log-log graph of

the normalized mean-squared voltage fluctuations [ VR2 / (4T f ) ] as a function of input resistance
(Rin) for each filter configuration that you used (usually 3 sets of data). Be sure to properly scale
all of your measured values by the gain. Show best fits to your data assuming that the thermal
noise in the resistor increases linearly with resistance, VR2  Rin , but with a constant background
noise from the amplifiers: V 2  G 2 VR2 /10  VA2 . Fit the data only over the range of
resistances that shows clean behavior.
In the caption: Give the values for your fit parameters, with uncertainties. Also give your best
estimate of Boltzmann’s constant, with its uncertainty. Explain the range of data that you used for
each fit, and the physical reason why you could reasonably neglect data points outside this range.
Hint: Examine the behavior in Fig. 2 for various resistance values.

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