Power Amp Designer101!

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This page provides instructions on a spreadsheet that will help you floor-plan a power amp! By "floor plan", we mean determining the correct transistor peripheries (sizes) and bias points to achieve a given power level while maximizing efficiency. Even with this tool, you may need to design a few failures before you nail a design. Like Alanis Morrisette said, you lose, you learn!

Power Amp Designer101!

The Excel file we will discuss is in our download area. Before we get started, keep in mind that floor planning a power amplifier represents less than 10% of the work required to actually execute a design, unless you are using pre-matched transistors. The complete design will require the use of expensive EDA software for designing matching networks and laying out the circuit. But getting the floor plan right is a critical part of the exercise, no doubt about it.

The efficiency calculations can be reviewed on this page.

New for November 2015: there are many aspects of designing a power amplifier. This page you are reading was written for power amplifier designers with some level of experience, who already understand something about wave-forms, power (DC and RF) definitions and equations, frequency and time domain analyses, and load lines to name a few. Need a quick refresher? These topics are all introduced in the video below, produced  by our friends at Keysight. Enjoy!


How to design a power amplifer: the Basics by Matt Ozalas of Keysight



In designing a power amp, the first thing you need to consider is how much power you need to obtain, and whether there are any special considerations on linearity. In a radar it doesn't matter much if your power amp is six dB into compression, but in a communication system it matters a lot. For now we'll assume the radar case.

Some definitions

Let's define a couple of terms on this page first:

Technology platform
This phrase comes up when you are discussing what semiconductor to use. Technology platform could be SiGe HBT, GaAs PHEMT or InP PHEMT for examples. While we're on the subject of technology, let's make one thing crystal clear. Anyone who uses the term "tech" in place of the word "technology" is a lightweight and should be fired during the third Bush Recession. Then they'd have more time to sit about reading PopSci or other dumbed-down science publications that exist mainly to sell male enhancement products to lonely would-be geeks. Reserve the phrase "high tech" to throwaway gadgets, not real design work.

This is a measure of the size of a transistor. The periphery of a FET is measured in linear dimension of the gate width, in microns or millimeters. If you are dealing with vertical structures such as HBTs, the periphery is measured in area (usually micron^2). We'll use the convention that we are dealing with FETs, you can't please everyone!

Periphery ratio
The ratio of the sizes of stage N to stage N-1, the higher the periphery ratio, the sportier the design, meaning you walk a fine line between setting a new industry benchmark versus your design going down in flames because you don't have enough drive to the final stage.

Power density
This is a measure of power divided by transistors size. In the case of FETs it is expressed in watts/mm. In olden times GaAs MESFETs struggled to achieve power densities beyond 1 watt/mm. Soon we will see in production GaN transistors with more than 10W/mm power density. That's progress!

Saturated output power (PSAT)
This is the output power where the Pin/Pout curve slope goes to zero. This is the most you can get!

Selecting the technology platform

You need to consider what technology your power amp will use, and gain, efficiency, power density, etc. it can provide. Possibilities include MESFETs, PHEMTs or HBTs. Try to come up with something that can provide at least 10 dB small-signal available gain (GMAX) or your efficiency will be low. With 10 dB gain available, it is usually no problem to arrive at matching networks with 10-20% bandwidth that will provide at least 7 or 8 dB small signal gain and perhaps 5 to 6 dB under saturated drive. You should also obtain some load-pull Pin/Pout curves (including gain and efficiency) of the representative technology so you'll know what the best efficiency you can expect is. Check out our page on load pull so you'll know what we are talking about.

How much compression should each stage have?

The output stage should exhibit the most gain compression, plan on at least 2 dB to get close to maximum power (Psat). The second to last stage also needs to compress, but you want to have some design margin so design it to operate at only one dB compression when it is saturating the final stage. Oversize the prior stages so they operate linearly or just slightly into compression.

How much loss is in the matching networks?

The resistive loss of transmission lines is inescapable. But it can be minimized.

More on this later...

Resistors in drain supply networks?

Lots of amplifiers use resistors in the drain supply lines (thanks to Chris, who pointed out that drain terminal does not actually bias the amplifier), in order to reduce the voltage on the earlier stages, or to improve RF stability. In a power amp the bias resistors reduce efficiency, but everything is a compromise, right? In any case we considered that you might want to use bias resisters when we put together the spreadsheet.

How close to maximum efficiency can I operate each stage?

Here's what we recommend: the output stage is the only stage that you should try to operate at the best efficiency. If the technology platform is capable of 55% drain efficiency at 2 dB gain compression, that's a good goal for the final stage. Then back off the third stage to 40% efficiency, the second stage to 30%, and the first stage to 20%. This is necessary because it is nearly impossible to design perfect matching networks that will provide the optimum load at center frequency and provide stable operation from dc to light.

Now on to the spreadsheet!

There are probably a thousand version of such a spreadsheet, and every designer has his own preferences. We made two versions to try to satisfy a wider audience. Feel free to give us feedback if you have a better idea.

Each stage in the spreadsheet includes a FET (or multiple FETs in parallel), and input matching network and an output matching network, and a bias resistor. The input and output matching networks contribute RF loss (which is entered in dB), while the bias resistor contributes dc voltage drop, another power loss that reduces efficiency.

Here's all of the variables in the version that appears on Sheet1:

  • Output power (watts)
  • FET periphery in millimeters (number of fingers x unit finger width)
  • Bias voltage in volts
  • Bias current density in mA/mm
  • Bias network resistance in ohms
  • Input matching network loss in dB
  • Output matching network loss in dB
  • Transistor gain in dB
  • Transistor gain compression in dB


From these variables, the drain efficiencies and power added efficiencies of each stage are all calculated. It's up to you to determine what is reasonable for each stage, just because you can floor plan an amplifier with each stage operating at 40% efficiency doesn't mean you can build it.

The second worksheet (Sheet2) performs the same calculations but the drain efficiency is now an independent variable. You enter drain efficiency (rather than device periphery), and the spreadsheet calculates the drain current and current density. Again, it's up to you to input realistic values.

Time for an example!

Suppose you were planning on a 20 GHz amplifier using 0.25 micron pHEMT technology. You'd go to a foundry and get information on IV curves, operating voltage, and maximum available gain. Here's some info we gleaned from the web from the "T-word" company. If they decide to sponsor a page here we'll go in the tank for them and even reveal their name.

Here's some IV curves. Normalizing to 1mm periphery we see that IDSS (VGS=0 volts) is 240 ma/mm, IMAX is about 470. We'll pick an operating point at

Power Amp Designer101!


Here's the available gain. Although it isn't measured at a "power bias", we'll assume that the gain doesn't change much when you increase the voltage to 8 volts (the maximum recommended voltage is 9 volts, but why push your luck...) At 20 GHz we see 12 dB gain, plenty of gain for an efficient amplifier.

Power Amp Designer101!

Next here's a loadpull result at 9 volts, tuned for best efficiency. A true Bazooka Joe graph, this is gonna take some time to pull off the numbers that we need. Let's assume this is a hero result and back off a little. We'll plan for 50% power-added efficiency for the final stage in our design. The compression of the device is very soft, it is compressed at 28 dBm output power.

This is probably an 8x100 micron device but that level of detail isn't provided. The output power at maximum efficiency is ~28 dBm, or 630 mW. Normalizing to 1mm periphery reveals that the power capability is about 790 mw/mm.

Power Amp Designer101!

What really sucks is that they didn't provide dc current on the plot. We'll have to reverse engineer that.

Coming soon!

Note: these images are mere placeholders, they have little to do with the design we are looking at.

Power Amp Designer101!

What if I only want to design a two-stage or three-stage amp?

For now, just enter 0 dB gain, compression and matching network losses on the stages you don't need, starting from the left. We'll try to automate this in the future.

Comments or questions? Please email us!



Author : Unknown Editor