LVDT converter: a Mahr P2004M, some electronics, and sub-micron resolution

Recently, I got a Mahr P2004M linear variable differential transformer (in short: LVDT), which is a device that can measure distance of roughly 2 mm with basically unlimited resolution. As the name says, it is a transformer, and the primary is to be fed with 19.4 kHz (or there abouts) sine, at 5 Vrms, and if the plunger is half-way in, the secondary coils with balance out, and there will be zero voltage. For any displacement from that position, there will be an appreciable voltage at the output. With the right amplifiers and converters, we can use this to measure distances extremely precisely.

To do some test, I mounted the LVDT in a height gauge, because I didn’t know if it was actually working.

The plug was broken, mechanically, but the little board inside was OK. So I replaced the plug, it is rather common 5-pin DIN plug with screw shield, same as is used for precision 100 Ohm Pt100 temperature sensors.

The circuit appears to have some capacitor, resistor, and an overvoltage protection device. I drew the circuit, but nothing special found.

For a basic test, I used a HP 3325B generator and a dual-channel scope.

Clearly seen, the LVDT is working. There is a certain phase shift of the incoming and outgoing signal, which is normal.

The noise is very small, well below 1 mV with some averaging. Note that the signal will probably go through a filter with 1 Hz or slower time constant.

To check the frequency response, I connected the LVDT to a HP 3585A analyzer, and clearly there is a peak sensitivity around 20 kHz. Better to operate close to that frequency (Mahr may specify 19.4 kHz for most of their sensors).

The Mahr datasheet also specifies how the input is supposed to be connected. There is a similar R-C circuit in the plug, at the other end.

Following earlier circuit designs, and also some Application Notes (Analog Devices AN-301 in particular), a circuit has been put together, consisting of a phase-shift oscillator with buffer and stabilized amplitude (TL431 used as a reference).

The key part is the switched rectifier, which is in a fixed (adjustable) phase relationship to the exiting signal. For adjustment, first null the comparator, then adjust the phase shift for precise switching around the zero point and check that this also coincides with the maximum amplitude at reasonable deviation from the zero position (about 1 mm of travel may be good for a 2 mm probe). The adjustment of the phase is fairly non-critical, but will ensure linearity around zero.

For some basic measurement, connected a 16×2 LCD, but finally decided for a 128×64 dot matrix display with white backlight. With that I can use large lettering which is easy to read in the workshop from a distance.

The full schematic, it a bit crude, may need to be re-drawn eventually. There is a power supply, +-15 Volts firstly, for the amplifier circuit, +5 V for the LCD and microcontroller, an ATMEGA128A.

The A/D conversion is done by an ADS1211U (even if the schematic may show ADS1210), a very reliable and highly precise part. A 24-bit sigma-delta converter. These parts don’t come cheap recently, about EUR 30 a piece, but fortunately, I had one in stock.
It has two separate power supplies of 5 V, one for digital, one for analog (with additional filtering): both are derived from the +15 V rail.

The switched rectifier for phase demodulation is done by a DG202 analog switch (all switches paralleled up for low resistance) rather than a FET transistor – simply because this is a way I normally design the lock-in amplifiers and phase detectors.

With everything arranged and tested, I put the circuit in a sturdy aluminum case. The switches are toggle switches that are easy to operate in the workshop. Sure we could attached various touch screens and buttons, but these are not convenient in a workshop with oil and dust.

The little device runs from 230 VAC mains, and doesn’t need much power at all (to most is consumed by the LCD backlight, which is LED based and supplied from the unregulated negative voltage via a resistor current limiter.

Finally, placed the LVDT setup on the granite surface plate.

So far working very well. There is no visible drift, at a 0.1 micron resolution. I have no intention to go below 0.1 micron in my workshop, as this is a metal working facility, no intention to fabricate telescope mirrors or optical parts.