Unbalanced line

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This article is about the electrical transmission line. For the American football offensive line, see glossary of American football. For three-phase electric power lines carrying unbalanced currents see Three-phase electric power#Unbalanced loads.
A multicore cable able to support 25 unbalanced transmission lines Cable-multicore-25x014mm-0a.jpg
A multicore cable able to support 25 unbalanced transmission lines

In electrical engineering, an unbalanced line is a transmission line, often coaxial cable, whose conductors have unequal impedances with respect to ground; as opposed to a balanced line. Microstrip and single-wire lines are also unbalanced lines.

Electrical engineering field of engineering that deals with electricity

Electrical engineering is a professional engineering discipline that generally deals with the study and application of electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism. This field first became an identifiable occupation in the later half of the 19th century after commercialization of the electric telegraph, the telephone, and electric power distribution and use. Subsequently, broadcasting and recording media made electronics part of daily life. The invention of the transistor, and later the integrated circuit, brought down the cost of electronics to the point they can be used in almost any household object.

Transmission line specialized cable or other structure designed to carry alternating current of radio frequency

In radio-frequency engineering, a transmission line is a specialized cable or other structure designed to conduct alternating current of radio frequency, that is, currents with a frequency high enough that their wave nature must be taken into account. Transmission lines are used for purposes such as connecting radio transmitters and receivers with their antennas, distributing cable television signals, trunklines routing calls between telephone switching centres, computer network connections and high speed computer data buses.

Coaxial cable A type of electrical cable with an inner conductor surrounded by concentric insulating layer and conducting shield

Coaxial cable, or coax is a type of electrical cable that has an inner conductor surrounded by a tubular insulating layer, surrounded by a tubular conducting shield. Many coaxial cables also have an insulating outer sheath or jacket. The term coaxial comes from the inner conductor and the outer shield sharing a geometric axis. Coaxial cable was invented by English engineer and mathematician Oliver Heaviside, who patented the design in 1880.


General description

Any line that has a different impedance of the return path may be considered an unbalanced line. However, unbalanced lines usually consist of a conductor that is considered the signal line and another conductor that is grounded, or is ground itself. The ground conductor often takes the form of a ground plane or the screen of a cable. The ground conductor may be, and often is, common to multiple independent circuits. For this reason the ground conductor may be referred to as common.

Ground (electricity) reference point in an electrical circuit from which voltages are measured, a common return path for electric current, or a direct physical connection to the Earth

In electrical engineering, ground or earth is the reference point in an electrical circuit from which voltages are measured, a common return path for electric current, or a direct physical connection to the earth.

Ground plane

In electrical engineering, a ground plane is an electrically conductive surface, usually connected to electrical ground. The term has two different meanings in separate areas of electrical engineering. In antenna theory, a ground plane is a conducting surface large in comparison to the wavelength, such as the Earth, which is connected to the transmitter's ground wire and serves as a reflecting surface for radio waves. In printed circuit boards, a ground plane is a large area of copper foil on the board which is connected to the power supply ground terminal and serves as a return path for current from different components on the board.

Shielded cable electrical conductors enclosed by a conductive layer

A shielded cable or screened cable is an electrical cable of one or more insulated conductors enclosed by a common conductive layer. The shield may be composed of braided strands of copper, a non-braided spiral winding of copper tape, or a layer of conducting polymer. Usually this shield is covered with a jacket.

Telegraph lines

Telegraph lines on an Oppenheimer pole outside the historic Alice Springs telegraph station on the now disused Australian Overland Telegraph Line Alice Springs Telegraph Station 4.jpg
Telegraph lines on an Oppenheimer pole outside the historic Alice Springs telegraph station on the now disused Australian Overland Telegraph Line

The earliest use of unbalanced transmission lines was for electric telegraph communications. These consisted of single wires strung between poles. The return path for the current was originally provided by a separate conductor. Some early telegraph systems, such as Schilling's experimental needle telegraph (1832) and the Cooke & Wheatstone five-needle telegraph (1837) used by British railways required multiple code wires. Essentially, they were parallel bus coding. In these systems the cost of the return conductor was not so significant (one conductor in seven for Schilling's earliest needle telegraph [1] and one conductor in six for the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph [2] ) but the number of coding conductors was progressively reduced with improved systems. Soon only one coding wire was required with the data being transmitted serially. Important examples of these single-wire systems were the Morse telegraph (1837) and the Cooke & Wheatstone single-needle telegraph (1843). In such systems the cost of a return conductor was fully 50 per cent of the cable costs. It was discovered that a return conductor could be replaced with a return path through the Earth using grounding spikes. Using earth return was a significant cost saving and rapidly became the norm.

Pavel Schilling Russian inventor

Baron Pavel L'vovitch Schilling, also known as Paul Schilling, was a diplomat of Baltic German origin employed in the service of Russia in Germany, and who built a pioneering electrical telegraph. It consisted of a single needle system which used a telegraph code to indicate the characters in a message.

Needle telegraph

A needle telegraph is an electrical telegraph that uses indicating needles moved electromagnetically as its means of displaying messages. It is one of the two main types of electromagnetic telegraph, the other being the armature system as exemplified by the telegraph of Samuel Morse in the United States. The principal needle system was the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph, a system widely used in Britain and the British Empire in the 19th and early-20th centuries. However, the earliest needle telegraph was a binary coded multi-wire, multi-needle system invented by Pavel Schilling and demonstrated in St. Petersburg in 1832. Charles Wheatstone may have demonstrated one of Schilling's instruments in 1835. Cooke definitely saw Schilling's needle instrument at a lecture of Georg Wilhelm Muncke in Heidelberg. It was this lecture that inspired Cooke to attempt building a telegraph, although he did not use needle instruments until Wheatstone came on board and suggested it.

Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph

The Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph was an early electrical telegraph system dating from the 1830s invented by English inventor William Fothergill Cooke and English scientist Charles Wheatstone. It was a form of needle telegraph, and the first telegraph system to be put into commercial service. The receiver consisted of a number of needles which could be moved by electromagnetic coils to point to letters on a board. This feature was liked by early users who were unwilling to learn codes, and employers who did not want to invest in staff training.

Underground telegraph cables into large buildings or between stations often needed to carry multiple independent telegraph lines. These cables took the form of multiple insulated conductors enclosed by a metal screen and overall protective jacket. In such cables the screen can be used as the return conductor. Undersea telegraph cables were usually a single conductor protected by steel-wire armour, effectively a coaxial cable. The first transatlantic cable of this kind was completed in 1866.

Steel wire armoured cable, commonly abbreviated as SWA, is a hard-wearing power cable designed for the supply of mains electricity. It is one of a number of armoured electrical cables – which include 11 kV Cable and 33 kV Cable – and is found in underground systems, power networks and cable ducting.

Early telephone lines (telephone invented 1876) used the same transmission line scheme as telegraph of unbalanced single wires. However, telephone communication started to suffer after the widespread introduction of electrical power lines. Telephone transmission started to use balanced lines to combat this problem and the modern norm for telephone presentation is the balanced twisted pair cable.

Telephone telecommunications device

A telephone, or phone, is a telecommunications device that permits two or more users to conduct a conversation when they are too far apart to be heard directly. A telephone converts sound, typically and most efficiently the human voice, into electronic signals that are transmitted via cables and other communication channels to another telephone which reproduces the sound to the receiving user.

In telecommunications and professional audio, a balanced line or balanced signal pair is a transmission line consisting of two conductors of the same type, each of which have equal impedances along their lengths and equal impedances to ground and to other circuits. The chief advantage of the balanced line format is good rejection of external noise when fed to a differential amplifier. Common forms of balanced line are twin-lead, used for radio frequency signals and twisted pair, used for lower frequencies. They are to be contrasted to unbalanced lines, such as coaxial cable, which is designed to have its return conductor connected to ground, or circuits whose return conductor actually is ground. Balanced and unbalanced circuits can be interconnected using a transformer called a balun.

Twisted pair wiring in which two conductors of a circuit are twisted together to improve electromagnetic compatibility

Twisted pair cabling is a type of wiring in which two conductors of a single circuit are twisted together for the purposes of improving electromagnetic compatibility. Compared to a single conductor or an untwisted balanced pair, a twisted pair reduces electromagnetic radiation from the pair and crosstalk between neighboring pairs and improves rejection of external electromagnetic interference. It was invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

Coaxial lines

Coaxial cable Coaxial cable cut.jpg
Coaxial cable

A coaxial line (coax) has a central signal conductor surrounded by a cylindrical shielding conductor. The shield conductor is normally grounded. The coaxial format was developed during World War II for use in radar. It was originally constructed from rigid copper pipes, but the usual form today is a flexible cable with a braided screen. The advantages of coax are a theoretically perfect electrostatic screen and highly predictable transmission parameters. The latter is a result of the fixed geometry of the format which leads to a precision not found with loose wires. Open wire systems are also affected by nearby objects altering the field pattern around the conductor. Coax does not suffer from this since the field is entirely contained within the cable due to the surrounding screen.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Radar object detection system based on radio waves

Radar is a detection system that uses radio waves to determine the range, angle, or velocity of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships, spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain. A radar system consists of a transmitter producing electromagnetic waves in the radio or microwaves domain, a transmitting antenna, a receiving antenna and a receiver and processor to determine properties of the object(s). Radio waves from the transmitter reflect off the object and return to the receiver, giving information about the object's location and speed.

Coaxial lines are the norm for connections between radio transmitters and their antennae, for interconnection of electronic equipment where high frequency or above is involved, and were formerly widely used for forming local area networks before twisted pair became popular for this purpose.

Triaxial cable (triax) is a variant of coax with a second shield conductor surrounding the first with a layer of insulation in between. As well as providing additional shielding, the outer conductors can be used for other purposes such as providing power to equipment or control signals. Triax is widely used for the connection of cameras in television studios.

Planar technologies

Microstrip parallel-coupled transmission lines. The design forms a band-pass filter Microstrip-bandpass-filter.jpg
Microstrip parallel-coupled transmission lines. The design forms a band-pass filter

Planar format transmission lines are flat conductors manufactured by a number of techniques on to a substrate. They are nearly always an unbalanced format. At the low transmission speeds of early telegraph it was only necessary to consider transmission line theory for a circuit design when the transmission was over many miles. Similarly, the audio frequencies used by telephones are relatively low and transmission line theory only becomes significant for distances of at least between buildings. However, at the higher radio frequencies and microwave frequencies transmission line considerations can become important inside a device, just a matter of centimetres. At the very high data rates handled by modern computer processors, transmission line considerations can even be important inside an individual integrated circuit. Planar technologies were developed for these kinds of small size applications and are not very appropriate for long distance transmissions.


Stripline is a flat conductor with a ground plane both above and below the conductor. The variant of stripline where the space between the two ground planes is completely filled with a dielectric material is sometimes known as triplate. Stripline can be manufactured by etching the transmission line pattern on to a printed circuit board. The bottom of this board is left completely covered in copper and forms the bottom ground plane. A second board is clamped on top of the first. This second board has no pattern on the bottom and plain copper on the top to form the top ground plane. A sheet of copper foil may be wrapped around the two boards to electrically bond the two ground planes firmly together. On the other hand, stripline for high power applications such as radar will more likely be made as solid metal strips with periodic dielectric supports, essentially air dielectric.


Microstrip is similar to stripline but is open above the conductor. There is no dielectric or ground plane above the transmission line, there is only dielectric and a ground plane below the line. Microstrip is a popular format, especially in domestic products, because microstrip components can be made using the established manufacturing techniques of printed circuit boards. Designers are thus able to mix discrete component circuits with microstrip components. Furthermore, since the board has to be made anyway, the microstrip components have no additional manufacturing cost. For applications where performance is more important than cost a ceramic substrate might be used instead of a printed circuit. Microstrip has another small advantage over stripline; the line widths are wider in microstrip for the same impedance and thus manufacturing tolerances and minimum width are less critical on high-impedance lines. A drawback of microstrip is that the mode of transmission is not entirely transverse. Strictly speaking, standard transmission line analysis does not apply because other modes are present, but it can be a usable approximation.

Integrated circuits

Connections within integrated circuits are normally planar so planar transmission lines are a natural choice where these are needed. The need for transmission lines is most frequently found in microwave integrated circuits (MICs). There are a great many materials and techniques used to make MICs, and transmission lines can be formed in any of these technologies.

Planar transmission lines are used for far more than merely connecting components or units together. They can themselves be used as components and units. Any transmission line format can be used in this way, but for the planar formats it is often their primary purpose. Typical circuit blocks implemented by transmission lines include filters, directions couplers and power splitters, and impedance matching. At microwave frequencies discrete components need to be impractically small and a transmission line solution is the only viable one. On the other hand, at low frequencies such as audio applications, transmission line devices need to be impractically large.

Power transmission

A pole-mount transformer on a single-wire earth return line in Canada Single-phase-pole-transformer-d335.jpg
A pole-mount transformer on a single-wire earth return line in Canada

Electric power distribution is normally in the form of balanced three-phase transmission. However, in some remote locations where a relatively small amount of power is required, a single-wire earth return system may be used.

Related Research Articles

Differential signaling electronics

Differential signaling is a method for electrically transmitting information using two complementary signals. The technique sends the same electrical signal as a differential pair of signals, each in its own conductor. The pair of conductors can be wires or traces on a circuit board. The receiving circuit responds to the electrical difference between the two signals, rather than the difference between a single wire and ground. The opposite technique is called single-ended signaling. Differential pairs are usually found on printed circuit boards, in twisted-pair and ribbon cables, and in connectors.

Feed line Transmission line in radio antennas

In a radio antenna, the feed line (feedline), or feeder, is the cable or other transmission line that connects the antenna with the radio transmitter or receiver. In a transmitting antenna, it feeds the radio frequency (RF) current from the transmitter to the antenna, where it is radiated as radio waves. In a receiving antenna it transfers the tiny RF voltage induced in the antenna by the radio wave to the receiver. In order to carry RF current efficiently, feed lines are made of specialized types of cable called transmission line. The most widely used types of feed line are coaxial cable, twin-lead, ladder line, and at microwave frequencies, waveguide.

Microstrip antenna

In telecommunication, a microstrip antenna usually means an antenna fabriciated using microstrip techniques on a printed circuit board (PCB). It is a kind of internal antenna. They are mostly used at microwave frequencies. An individual microstrip antenna consists of a patch of metal foil of various shapes on the surface of a PCB, with a metal foil ground plane on the other side of the board. Most microstrip antennas consist of multiple patches in a two-dimensional array. The antenna is usually connected to the transmitter or receiver through foil microstrip transmission lines. The radio frequency current is applied between the antenna and ground plane. Microstrip antennas have become very popular in recent decades due to their thin planar profile which can be incorporated into the surfaces of consumer products, aircraft and missiles; their ease of fabrication using printed circuit techniques; the ease of integrating the antenna on the same board with the rest of the circuit, and the possibility of adding active devices such as microwave integrated circuits to the antenna itself to make active antennas.

Microstrip electrical transmission line for microwave-frequency signals on printed circuit board

Microstrip is a type of electrical transmission line which can be fabricated using printed circuit board technology, and is used to convey microwave-frequency signals. It consists of a conducting strip separated from a ground plane by a dielectric layer known as the substrate. Microwave components such as antennas, couplers, filters, power dividers etc. can be formed from microstrip, with the entire device existing as the pattern of metallization on the substrate. Microstrip is thus much less expensive than traditional waveguide technology, as well as being far lighter and more compact. Microstrip was developed by ITT laboratories as a competitor to stripline.

Stub (electronics) short electrical transmission line

In microwave and radio-frequency engineering, a stub or resonant stub is a length of transmission line or waveguide that is connected at one end only. The free end of the stub is either left open-circuit or short-circuited. Neglecting transmission line losses, the input impedance of the stub is purely reactive; either capacitive or inductive, depending on the electrical length of the stub, and on whether it is open or short circuit. Stubs may thus function as capacitors, inductors and resonant circuits at radio frequencies.

The spurline is a type of radio-frequency and microwave distributed element filter with band-stop (notch) characteristics, most commonly used with microstrip transmission lines. Spurlines usually exhibit moderate to narrow-band rejection, at about 10% around the central frequency.

Stripline transverse electromagnetic (TEM) transmission line

Stripline is a transverse electromagnetic (TEM) transmission line medium invented by Robert M. Barrett of the Air Force Cambridge Research Centre in the 1950s. Stripline is the earliest form of planar transmission line.

Power dividers and directional couplers

Power dividers and directional couplers are passive devices used mostly in the field of radio technology. They couple a defined amount of the electromagnetic power in a transmission line to a port enabling the signal to be used in another circuit. An essential feature of directional couplers is that they only couple power flowing in one direction. Power entering the output port is coupled to the isolated port but not to the coupled port. A directional coupler designed to split power equally between two ports is called a hybrid coupler.

A bias tee is a three-port network used for setting the DC bias point of some electronic components without disturbing other components. The bias tee is a diplexer. The low-frequency port is used to set the bias; the high-frequency port passes the radio-frequency signals but blocks the biasing levels; the combined port connects to the device, which sees both the bias and RF. It is called a tee because the 3 ports are often arranged in the shape of a T.

Distributed element filter

A distributed element filter is an electronic filter in which capacitance, inductance and resistance are not localised in discrete capacitors, inductors and resistors as they are in conventional filters. Its purpose is to allow a range of signal frequencies to pass, but to block others. Conventional filters are constructed from inductors and capacitors, and the circuits so built are described by the lumped element model, which considers each element to be "lumped together" at one place. That model is conceptually simple, but it becomes increasingly unreliable as the frequency of the signal increases, or equivalently as the wavelength decreases. The distributed element model applies at all frequencies, and is used in transmission line theory; many distributed element components are made of short lengths of transmission line. In the distributed view of circuits, the elements are distributed along the length of conductors and are inextricably mixed together. The filter design is usually concerned only with inductance and capacitance, but because of this mixing of elements they cannot be treated as separate "lumped" capacitors and inductors. There is no precise frequency above which distributed element filters must be used but they are especially associated with the microwave band.

Metamaterial antenna

Metamaterial antennas are a class of antennas which use metamaterials to increase performance of miniaturized antenna systems. Their purpose, as with any electromagnetic antenna, is to launch energy into free space. However, this class of antenna incorporates metamaterials, which are materials engineered with novel, often microscopic, structures to produce unusual physical properties. Antenna designs incorporating metamaterials can step-up the antenna's radiated power.

A via fence, also called a picket fence, is a structure used in planar electronic circuit technologies to improve isolation between components which would otherwise be coupled by electromagnetic fields. It consists of a row of via holes which, if spaced close enough together, form a barrier to electromagnetic wave propagation of slab modes in the substrate. Additionally if radiation in the air above the board is also to be suppressed, then a strip pad with via fence allows a shielding can to be electrically attached to the top side, but electrically behave as if it continued through the PCB.

Planar transmission line Transmission lines with flat ribbon-like conducting or dielectric lines

Planar transmission lines are transmission lines with conductors, or in some cases dielectric (insulating) strips, that are flat, ribbon-shaped lines. They are used to interconnect components on printed circuits and integrated circuits working at microwave frequencies because the planar type fits in well with the manufacturing methods for these components. Transmission lines are more than simply interconnections. With simple interconnections, the propagation of the electromagnetic wave along the wire is fast enough to be considered instantaneous, and the voltages at each end of the wire can be considered identical. If the wire is longer than a large fraction of a wavelength, these assumptions are no longer true and transmission line theory must be used instead. With transmission lines, the geometry of the line is precisely controlled so that its electrical behaviour is highly predictable. At lower frequencies, these considerations are only necessary for the cables connecting different pieces of equipment, but at microwave frequencies the distance at which transmission line theory becomes necessary is measured in millimetres. Hence, transmission lines are needed within circuits.

Coplanar waveguide

Coplanar waveguide is a type of electrical planar transmission line which can be fabricated using printed circuit board technology, and is used to convey microwave-frequency signals. On a smaller scale, coplanar waveguide transmission lines are also built into monolithic microwave integrated circuits. Conventional coplanar waveguide (CPW) consists of a single conducting track printed onto a dielectric substrate, together with a pair of return conductors, one to either side of the track. All three conductors are on the same side of the substrate, and hence are coplanar. The return conductors are separated from the central track by a small gap, which has an unvarying width along the length of the line. Away from the cental conductor, the return conductors usually extend to an indefinite but large distance, so that each is notionally a semi-infinite plane.

Inverted-F antenna

An inverted-F antenna is a type of antenna used in wireless communication. It consists of a monopole antenna running parallel to a ground plane and grounded at one end. The antenna is fed from an intermediate point a distance from the grounded end. The design has two advantages over a simple monopole: the antenna is shorter and more compact, and the impedance matching can be controlled by the designer without the need for extraneous matching components.

Air stripline is a form of electrical planar transmission line whereby a conductor in the form of a thin metal strip is suspended between two ground planes. The idea is to make the dielectric essentially air. Mechanical support of the line may be a thin substrate, periodical insulated supports, or the device connectors and other electrical items.

Distributed element circuit

Distributed element circuits are electrical circuits composed of lengths of transmission lines or other distributed components. These circuits perform the same functions as conventional circuits composed of passive components, such as capacitors, inductors, and transformers. They are used mostly at microwave frequencies, where conventional components are difficult to implement.


  1. Huurdeman, p. 54
  2. Huurdeman, p. 67