Proper Routing Makes For Many Happy Return Paths

Here’s a question for you: when your PCB has a ground plane layer, where do return signals flow? It seems like a trick question, but as [Kristof Mulier] explains, there’s more to return path routing (alternate link in case you run into a paywall) than just doing a copper pour and calling it a day.

Like so many other things in life, the answer to the above question is “it depends,” and as [Kristof] ably demonstrates in this concise article, the return path for a signal largely depends on its frequency. He begins by explaining current loop areas and how they factor into the tendency for a circuit to both emit and be susceptible to electromagnetic noise. The bigger the loop area, the worse things can get from a noise perspective. At low frequencies, return signals will tend to take the shortest possible path, which can result in large current loop areas if you’re not careful. At higher frequencies, though, signals will tend to follow the path of minimal energy instead, which generally ends up being similar to the signal trace, even if it has a huge ground plane to flow through.

Since high-frequency signals naturally follow a path through the ground plane that minimizes the current loop, that means the problem takes care of itself, right? It would, except that we have a habit of putting all kinds of gaps in the way, from ground plane vias to isolation slots. [Kristof] argues that this can result in return paths that wiggle around these features, increasing the current loop area to the point where problems creep in. His solution? Route all your signal return paths. Even if you know that the return traces are going to get incorporated into a pour, the act of intentionally routing them will help minimize the current loop area. It’s brilliantly counterintuitive.

This is the first time we’ve seen the topic of high-frequency return paths tackled. This succinct demonstration shows exactly how return path obstructions can cause unexpected results.

Thanks to [Marius Heier] for the tip.

The Perils Of Return Path Gaps

The radio frequency world is full of mysteries, some of which seem to take a lifetime to master. And even then, it seems like there’s always something more to learn, and some new subtlety that can turn a good design on paper into a nightmare of unwanted interference and unexpected consequences in the real world.

As [Ken Wyatt] aptly demonstrates in the video below, where you put gaps in return paths on a PCB is one way to really screw things up. His demo system is simple: a pair of insulated wires running from the center pins on BNC jacks and running along the surface of a piece of copper-clad board to simulate a PCB trace. The end of each wire is connected to the board’s ground plane through a 50 ohm resistor, with one wire running over a narrow slot cut into the board. A harmonics-rich signal is fed into each trace while an H-field EMC probe connected to a spectrum analyzer is run along the length of the trace.

With the trace running over the solid ground plane, the harmonics are plentiful, as expected, but they fall off very quickly away from the trace. But over on the trace with the gapped return trace it’s a far different story. The harmonics are still there, but they’re about 5 dBmV higher in the vicinity of the gap. [Ken] also uses the probe to show just how far from the signal trace the return path extends to get around the gap. And even worse, the gap makes it so that harmonics are detectable on the unpowered trace. He also uses a current probe to show how common-mode current will radiate from a long conductor attached to the backplane, and that it’s about 20 dB higher with the gapped trace.

Hats off to [Ken] for this simple explanation and vivid reminder to watch return paths on clock traces and other high-frequency signals. Need an EMC probe to check your work? A bit of rigid coax and an SDR are all you needContinue reading “The Perils Of Return Path Gaps”