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Ferrite or Powder

Takis Perreas

Choice of ferromagnetic material

Contrary to information which sometimes appears in magazine
articles, the choice of material is of prime importance if the
expected results are to be realized from any design using
ferromagnetic cores. Let us look at the two most common core
materials in use; ferrite and iron powder. The choice between the
two is made by considering whether the core will be used in a wideband or narrow-band application and how much signal power will
be handled. For a given size core, ferrite material will saturate at a
much lower magnetic flux density than one made from iron powder.
Permeability for ferrite materials ranges from 20 to 15000 while for
iron powder it is from 2 to 75. As a "rule of thumb", the higher the
permeability of the material the greater will be the temperature
coefficient. If we are to use the core in a narrow-band (tuned)
circuit it therefore makes sense to use an iron powder type, which
will remain closer to the calculated inductance as the temperature
changes. In wide-band applications (e.g. a balun) this is not so
Wide-band Circuits
For wide-band circuits a ferrite is commonly used because the
higher permeability of ferrite material will provide a higher
inductance for a given number of turns and also provide tighter
coupling. Ferrite is a crystalline magnetic material made of iron
oxide and other elements. The mixture is processed at a high
temperature and formed into a crystalline molecular structure.
Unlike others, ferrites are ceramic materials with magnetic
properties. Ferrites have high magnetic permeability and high
electrical resistivity. Consequently, undesirable eddy currents are
greatly reduced by ferrite cores. With their high resistivity, ferrites
are ideal for use as inductors. For example, ferrite beads are
frequently used to reduce parasitic oscillations and for general
filtering at the component lead level. This type of broadband
component requires a broadband low-Q in order to provide high
impedance over a wide frequency range. The type of ferrite chosen
must exhibit low loss over the desired range of frequencies. The
common rule for design of wide-band transformers is that the
reactance (XL) of a winding must not be less than four times the

source impedance at the lowest frequency. "What about the effects

of this at the high frequency end?" you may ask. Well luckily there
is no cause for concern, as the effective permeability of the ferrite
core material decreases with increasing frequency, thus reducing
the inductance of the winding. With the proper selection of core
material it is easy to make wide-band transformers which cover one
decade in frequency: e.g. 3 - 30 MHz.
Ferrite materials can be divided into two groups: those with initial
permeability below 1000 which are nickel-zinc compounds and
those above 1000 which are made from manganese-zinc
compounds. The permeability of all ferrite materials is dependant
on frequency, so simple calculations using the low frequency
(approx. 10kHz) AL quoted values cannot be used where RF is
involved. Nickel-zinc ferrites exhibit high volume resistivity,
moderate temperature stability and can offer high Q factors for the
0.5 to 100 MHz frequency range. They are well suited for low
power, high inductance applications, and their high permeability
factors make them very useful for wide-band transformer
applications. The manganese-zinc group have relatively low volume
resistivity and moderate saturation flux density. They can give high
Q factors for the 1 kHz to 1 MHz frequency range, and some are
suitable for switched-mode power conversion transformers
operating between 20 and 100 kHz. Incidentally, the high
permeability iron powder core made from 26 or 52 material is
particularly suitable for the filter inductor in switched mode power
Narrow-band (Tuned) Circuits
Narrow-band applications usually use iron powder cores which can
provide good Q values into the VHF frequencies. Soft iron powder
has higher resistivity than silicon steel. By special processing, iron
particles are insulated from each other. The particles are mixed with
a binder (such as phenolic or epoxy). The cores are then pressed
into their final shape. Next, a baking process is used to cure the
cores. After curing, many tiny air gaps combine to provide a
distributed air gap effect. In other words, the air gap has been
distributed throughout the core. Iron powder cores have found wide
use when core loss is a consideration. Iron powder materials have
very high resistivity due to the manufacturing process, and
inductors made with any of these materials maintain their
inductance up to about 500MHz. Wide-band circuits by their very
nature cannot have a high Q (circuit Q = centre freq/bandwidth).

The better temperature coefficient of iron powder materials makes

them the usual choice for any tuned circuit application. This is
particularly important when using cores in oscillator and filter
Core Parameters
Apart from the physical dimensions of a toroid (outside and inside
diameter, thickness) there is a value given for each particular core
size and material, which is usually called the AL value, and is the
manufacturers inductance index for the core. Unlike ferrite
materials the AL value for iron powder materials is not frequency
dependant, and the quoted values can be used directly in the
formula. Manufacturers data for iron powder and ferrite cores are in
the data tables and show all the required information. See the core
cross reference tables for some equivalents. The AL figure for iron
powder cores and ferrite cores it is quoted as nH/turn2.
The next important thing is:
Turn Ratio
With baluns, at least the ones wound on toroids, the impedance
ratio is the square of the turns ratio. For a 2:1 turns ratio you get
4:1 impedance, for 3:1 turns you get 9:1 impedance. So how can
you get something like 8:1 but stick to whole turns? By using
higher numbers of turns!
AB1JX (see apendix) wrote a UNIX programm calculating the Turn
and Impendeance Ratio for a given number of turns. 2 to 50 to be
precice and published more than 2300 calculations on his page! On
impedance matching, he did find that the impedance can be
considered to be the geometric mean of the DC resistance and the
reactance at the lowest frequency you intend to use it for. You can
look up a formula to figure out the inductance per turn on the core
you plan to use, then calculate an inductive reactance from that.
Try to figure out which side is more critical and calculate a number
of turns for that, then use the impedance ratio to figure the number
turns for the second winding. It seems to work.
All in all Coilcraft in their pdf paper conclude as...This paper
started with a discussion about what seemed like a simple
question: Ferrite or Powder?
In order to answer that question, we must consider not only
the core material choice, but how the core performance
compares to winding loss and how the inductors perform

with typical converter waveforms...