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Metal-oxide varistor manufactured by Siemens & Halske AG. Varistor S14K385 photo.jpg
Metal-oxide varistor manufactured by Siemens & Halske AG.
Modern varistor schematic symbol. Varistor symbol 1.png
Modern varistor schematic symbol.

A varistor is an electronic component with an electrical resistance that varies with the applied voltage. [1] Also known as a voltage-dependent resistor (VDR), it has a nonlinear, non-ohmic current–voltage characteristic that is similar to that of a diode. In contrast to a diode however, it has the same characteristic for both directions of traversing current. Traditionally, varistors were indeed constructed by connecting two rectifiers, such as the copper-oxide or germanium-oxide rectifier in anti-parallel configuration. At low voltage the varistor has a high electrical resistance which decreases as the voltage is raised. Modern varistors are primarily based on sintered ceramic metal-oxide materials which exhibit directional behavior only on a microscopic scale. This type is commonly known as the metal-oxide varistor (MOV).

Electronic component basic discrete device or physical entity in an electronic system used to affect electrons or their associated fields

An electronic component is any basic discrete device or physical entity in an electronic system used to affect electrons or their associated fields. Electronic components are mostly industrial products, available in a singular form and are not to be confused with electrical elements, which are conceptual abstractions representing idealized electronic components.

In mathematics and science, a nonlinear system is a system in which the change of the output is not proportional to the change of the input. Nonlinear problems are of interest to engineers, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, and many other scientists because most systems are inherently nonlinear in nature. Nonlinear dynamical systems, describing changes in variables over time, may appear chaotic, unpredictable, or counterintuitive, contrasting with much simpler linear systems.

A current–voltage characteristic or I–V curve is a relationship, typically represented as a chart or graph, between the electric current through a circuit, device, or material, and the corresponding voltage, or potential difference across it.


Varistors are used as control or compensation elements in circuits either to provide optimal operating conditions or to protect against excessive transient voltages. When used as protection devices, they shunt the current created by the excessive voltage away from sensitive components when triggered.

Electrical network Assemblage of connected electrical elements

An electrical network is an interconnection of electrical components or a model of such an interconnection, consisting of electrical elements. An electrical circuit is a network consisting of a closed loop, giving a return path for the current. Linear electrical networks, a special type consisting only of sources, linear lumped elements, and linear distributed elements, have the property that signals are linearly superimposable. They are thus more easily analyzed, using powerful frequency domain methods such as Laplace transforms, to determine DC response, AC response, and transient response.

Voltage difference in the electric potential between two points in space

Voltage, electric potential difference, electric pressure or electric tension is the difference in electric potential between two points. The difference in electric potential between two points in a static electric field is defined as the work needed per unit of charge to move a test charge between the two points. In the International System of Units, the derived unit for voltage is named volt. In SI units, work per unit charge is expressed as joules per coulomb, where 1 volt = 1 joule per 1 coulomb. The official SI definition for volt uses power and current, where 1 volt = 1 watt per 1 ampere. This definition is equivalent to the more commonly used 'joules per coulomb'. Voltage or electric potential difference is denoted symbolically by V, but more often simply as V, for instance in the context of Ohm's or Kirchhoff's circuit laws.

In electronics, a shunt is a device which creates a low-resistance path for electric current, to allow it to pass around another point in the circuit. The origin of the term is in the verb 'to shunt' meaning to turn away or follow a different path.

The name varistor is a portmanteau of varying resistor. The term is only used for non-ohmic varying resistors. Variable resistors, such as the potentiometer and the rheostat, have ohmic characteristics.

A portmanteau or portmanteau word is a linguistic blend of words, in which parts of multiple words or their phones (sounds) are combined into a new word, as in smog, coined by blending smoke and fog, or motel, from motor and hotel. In linguistics, a portmanteau is a single morph that is analyzed as representing two underlying morphemes.

Potentiometer Type of resistor, usually with three terminals

A potentiometer is a three-terminal resistor with a sliding or rotating contact that forms an adjustable voltage divider. If only two terminals are used, one end and the wiper, it acts as a variable resistor or rheostat.


The development of the varistor, in form of a new type of rectifier based on a cuprous oxide layer on copper, originated in the work by L.O. Grondahl and P.H. Geiger in 1927. [2]

Rectifier AC-DC conversion device; electrical device that converts alternating current (AC), which periodically reverses direction, to direct current (DC), which flows in only one direction

A rectifier is an electrical device that converts alternating current (AC), which periodically reverses direction, to direct current (DC), which flows in only one direction.

The copper-oxide varistor exhibited a varying resistance in dependence on the polarity and magnitude of applied voltage. [3] It was constructed from a small copper disk, of which one side was formed a layer of cuprous oxide. This arrangement provides low resistance to current flowing from the semiconducting oxide to the copper side, but a high resistance to current in the opposite direction, with the instantaneous resistance varying continuously with the voltage applied.

In the 1930s, small multiple-varistor assemblies of a maximum dimension of less than one inch and apparently indefinite useful lifetime found application in replacing bulky electron tube circuits as modulators and demodulators in carrier current systems for telephonic transmission. [3]

A carrier system is a telecommunications system that transmits information, such as the voice signals of a telephone call and the video signals of television, by modulation of one or multiple carrier signals above the principal voice frequency or data rate.

Other applications for varistors in the telephone plant included protection of circuits from voltage spikes and noise, as well as click suppression on receiver (ear-piece) elements to protect users' ears from popping noises when switching circuits. These varistors were constructed by layering an even number of rectifier disks in a stack and connecting the terminal ends and the center in an anti-parallel configuration, as shown in the photo of a Western Electric Type 3B varistor of June 1952 (below).

The Western Electric type 500 telephone set of 1949 introduced a dynamic loop equalization circuit using varistors that shunted relatively high levels of loop current on short central office loops to adjust the transmission and receiving signal levels automatically. On long loops, the varistors maintained a relatively high resistance and did not alter the signals significantly. [6]

Another type of varistor was made from silicon carbide by R. O. Grisdale in the early 1930s. It was used to guard telephone lines from lightning. [7]

In the early 1970s, Japanese researchers recognized the semiconducting electronic properties of zinc oxide (ZnO) as being useful as a new varistor type in a ceramic sintering process, which exhibited a voltage-current function similar to that of a pair of back-to-back Zener diodes. [8] [9] This type of device became the preferred method for protecting circuits from power surges and other destructive electric disturbances, and became known generally as the metal-oxide varistor (MOV). The randomness of orientation of ZnO grains in the bulk of this material provided the same voltage-current characteristics for both directions of current flow.

Composition, properties, and operation of the metal-oxide varistor

Varistor current vs voltage for zinc oxide (ZnO) and silicon carbide (SiC) devices Typische Varistorkennlinien.gif
Varistor current vs voltage for zinc oxide (ZnO) and silicon carbide (SiC) devices

The most common modern type of varistor is the metal-oxide varistor (MOV). This type contains a ceramic mass of zinc oxide grains, in a matrix of other metal oxides, such as small amounts of bismuth, cobalt, manganese oxides, sandwiched between two metal plates, which constitute the electrodes of the device. The boundary between each grain and a neighbor forms a diode junction, which allows current to flow in only one direction. The accumulation of randomly oriented grains is electrically equivalent to a network of back-to-back diode pairs, each pair in parallel with many other pairs. [10]

When a small voltage is applied across the electrodes, only a tiny current flows, caused by reverse leakage through the diode junctions. When a large voltage is applied, the diode junction breaks down due to a combination of thermionic emission and electron tunneling, resulting in a large current flow. The result of this behavior is a nonlinear current-voltage characteristic, in which the MOV has a high resistance at low voltages and a low resistance at high voltages.

Electrical characteristics

A varistor remains non-conductive as a shunt-mode device during normal operation when the voltage across it remains well below its "clamping voltage", thus varistors are typically used for suppressing line voltage surges. Varistors can fail for either of two reasons.

A catastrophic failure occurs from not successfully limiting a very large surge from an event like a lightning strike, where the energy involved is many orders of magnitude greater than the varistor can handle. Follow-through current resulting from a strike may melt, burn, or even vaporize the varistor. This thermal runaway is due to a lack of conformity in individual grain-boundary junctions, which leads to the failure of dominant current paths under thermal stress when the energy in a transient pulse (normally measured in joules) is too high (i.e. significantly exceeds the manufacture's "Absolute Maximum Ratings"). The probability of catastrophic failure can be reduced by increasing the rating, or using specially selected MOVs in parallel. [11]

Cumulative degradation occurs as more surges happen. For historical reasons, many MOVs have been incorrectly specified allowing frequent swells to also degrade capacity. [12] In this condition the varistor is not visibly damaged and outwardly appears functional (no catastrophic failure), but it no longer offers protection. [13] Eventually, it proceeds into a shorted circuit condition as the energy discharges create a conductive channel through the oxides.

The main parameter affecting varistor life expectancy is its energy (Joule) rating. Increasing the energy rating raises the number of (defined maximum size) transient pulses that it can accommodate exponentially as well as the cumulative sum of energy from clamping lesser pulses. As these pulses occur, the "clamping voltage" it provides during each event decreases, and a varistor is typically deemed to be functionally degraded when its "clamping voltage" has changed by 10%. Manufacturer's life-expectancy charts relate current, severity, and number of transients to make failure predictions based on the total energy dissipated over the life of the part.

In consumer electronics, particularly surge protectors, the MOV varistor size employed is small enough that eventually failure is expected. [14] Other applications, such as power transmission, use VDRs of different construction in multiple configurations engineered for long life span. [15]

High voltage varistor Varistor.jpg
High voltage varistor

Voltage rating

MOVs are specified according to the voltage range that they can tolerate without damage. Other important parameters are the varistor's energy rating in joules, operating voltage, response time, maximum current, and breakdown (clamping) voltage. Energy rating is often defined using standardized transients such as 8/20 microseconds or 10/1000 microseconds, where 8 microseconds is the transient's front time and 20 microseconds is the time to half value.


Typical capacitance for consumer-sized (7–20 mm diameter) varistors are in the range of 100–2,500 pF. Smaller, lower-capacitance varistors are available with capacitance of ~1 pF for microelectronic protection, such as in cellular phones. These low-capacitance varistors are, however, unable to withstand large surge currents simply due to their compact PCB-mount size.

Response time

The response time of the MOV is not standardized. The sub-nanosecond MOV response claim is based on the material's intrinsic response time, but will be slowed down by other factors such as the inductance of component leads and the mounting method. [16] That response time is also qualified as insignificant when compared to a transient having an 8 µs rise-time, thereby allowing ample time for the device to slowly turn-on. When subjected to a very fast, <1 ns rise-time transient, response times for the MOV are in the 40–60 ns range. [17]


To protect telecommunication lines, transient suppression devices such as 3 mil carbon blocks (IEEE C62.32), ultra-low capacitance varistors, and avalanche diodes are used. For higher frequencies, such as radio communication equipment, a gas discharge tube (GDT) may be utilized.[ citation needed ] A typical surge protector power strip is built using MOVs. Low-cost versions may use only one varistor, from the hot (live, active) to the neutral conductor. A better protector contains at least three varistors; one across each of the three pairs of conductors. In the United States, a power strip protector should have an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) 1449 3rd edition approval so that catastrophic MOV failure does not create a fire hazard. [18] [19]

Plug assembly with surge protector circuitry Surge protector plug circuitry back & front.jpg
Plug assembly with surge protector circuitry


While a MOV is designed to conduct significant power for very short durations (about 8 to 20 microseconds), such as caused by lightning strikes, it typically does not have the capacity to conduct sustained energy. Under normal utility voltage conditions, this is not a problem. However, certain types of faults on the utility power grid can result in sustained over-voltage conditions. Examples include a loss of a neutral conductor or shorted lines on the high voltage system. Application of sustained over-voltage to a MOV can cause high dissipation, potentially resulting in the MOV device catching fire. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has documented many cases of catastrophic fires that have been caused by MOV devices in surge suppressors, and has issued bulletins on the issue.[ citation needed ]

A 130 volt, 150 J MOV that has undergone catastrophic failure, apparently as a result of a lightning strike, showing evidence of heat and smoke. The 3 amp fast-blow fuse immediately in front of the varistor blew during the same event. Varistorfail full.jpg
A 130 volt, 150 J MOV that has undergone catastrophic failure, apparently as a result of a lightning strike, showing evidence of heat and smoke. The 3 amp fast-blow fuse immediately in front of the varistor blew during the same event.

A series connected thermal fuse is one solution to catastrophic MOV failure. Varistors with internal thermal protection are also available.

There are several issues to be noted regarding behavior of transient voltage surge suppressors (TVSS) incorporating MOVs under over-voltage conditions. Depending on the level of conducted current, dissipated heat may be insufficient to cause failure, but may degrade the MOV device and reduce its life expectancy. If excessive current is conducted by a MOV, it may fail catastrophically, keeping the load connected, but now without any surge protection. A user may have no indication when the surge suppressor has failed. Under the right conditions of over-voltage and line impedance, it may be possible to cause the MOV to burst into flames, [20] the root cause of many fires [21] and the main reason for NFPA's concern resulting in UL1449 in 1986 and subsequent revisions in 1998 and 2009. Properly designed TVSS devices must not fail catastrophically, resulting in the opening of a thermal fuse or something equivalent that only disconnects MOV devices.


A MOV inside a transient voltage surge suppressor (TVSS) does not provide complete protection for electrical equipment. In particular, it provides no protection from sustained over-voltages that may result in damage to that equipment as well as to the protector device. Other sustained and harmful over-voltages may be lower and therefore ignored by a MOV device.

A varistor provides no equipment protection from inrush current surges (during equipment startup), from overcurrent (created by a short circuit), or from voltage sags (brownouts); it neither senses nor affects such events. Susceptibility of electronic equipment to these other electric power disturbances is defined by other aspects of the system design, either inside the equipment itself or externally by means such as a UPS, a voltage regulator or a surge protector with built-in overvoltage protection (which typically consists of a voltage-sensing circuit and a relay for disconnecting the AC input when the voltage reaches a danger threshold).

Comparison to other transient suppressors

Another method for suppressing voltage spikes is the transient-voltage-suppression diode (TVS). Although diodes do not have as much capacity to conduct large surges as MOVs, diodes are not degraded by smaller surges and can be implemented with a lower "clamping voltage". MOVs degrade from repeated exposure to surges [22] and generally have a higher "clamping voltage" so that leakage does not degrade the MOV. Both types are available over a wide range of voltages. MOVs tend to be more suitable for higher voltages, because they can conduct the higher associated energies at less cost. [23]

Another type of transient suppressor is the gas-tube suppressor. This is a type of spark gap that may use air or an inert gas mixture and often, a small amount of radioactive material such as Ni-63, to provide a more consistent breakdown voltage and reduce response time. Unfortunately, these devices may have higher breakdown voltages and longer response times than varistors. However, they can handle significantly higher fault currents and withstand multiple high-voltage hits (for example, from lightning) without significant degradation.

Multi-layer varistor

Multi-layer varistor (MLV) devices provide electrostatic discharge protection to electronic circuits from low to medium energy transients in sensitive equipment operating at 0-120 volts dc. They have peak current ratings from about 20 to 500 amperes, and peak energy ratings from 0.05 to 2.5 joules.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

Diode abstract electronic component with two terminals that allows current to flow in one direction

A diode is a two-terminal electronic component that conducts current primarily in one direction ; it has low resistance in one direction, and high resistance in the other. A diode vacuum tube or thermionic diode is a vacuum tube with two electrodes, a heated cathode and a plate, in which electrons can flow in only one direction, from cathode to plate. A semiconductor diode, the most commonly used type today, is a crystalline piece of semiconductor material with a p–n junction connected to two electrical terminals. Semiconductor diodes were the first semiconductor electronic devices. The discovery of asymmetric electrical conduction across the contact between a crystalline mineral and a metal was made by German physicist Ferdinand Braun in 1874. Today, most diodes are made of silicon, but other materials such as gallium arsenide and germanium are also used.

Schottky diode semiconductor diode formed by the junction of a semiconductor with a metal, semiconductor diode with a low forward voltage drop

The Schottky diode, also known as Schottky barrier diode or hot-carrier diode, is a semiconductor diode formed by the junction of a semiconductor with a metal. It has a low forward voltage drop and a very fast switching action. The cat's-whisker detectors used in the early days of wireless and metal rectifiers used in early power applications can be considered primitive Schottky diodes.

In electronics, an avalanche diode is a diode that is designed to experience avalanche breakdown at a specified reverse bias voltage. The junction of an avalanche diode is designed to prevent current concentration and resulting hot spots, so that the diode is undamaged by the breakdown. The avalanche breakdown is due to minority carriers accelerated enough to create ionization in the crystal lattice, producing more carriers which in turn create more ionization. Because the avalanche breakdown is uniform across the whole junction, the breakdown voltage is nearly constant with changing current when compared to a non-avalanche diode.

Transient-voltage-suppression diode electronic component , power diode

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Voltage spike fast, short duration electrical transient in voltage in an electrical circuit

In electrical engineering, spikes are fast, short duration electrical transients in voltage, current, or transferred energy in an electrical circuit.

A surge protector is an appliance or device designed to protect electrical devices from voltage spikes.

DIAC diode that conducts current only after its breakover voltage has been reached momentarily

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Metal rectifier

A metal rectifier is an early type of semiconductor rectifier in which the semiconductor is copper oxide or selenium. They were used in power applications to convert alternating current to direct current in devices such as radios and battery chargers. Westinghouse Electric was a major manufacturer of these rectifiers since the late 1920s, under the trade name Westector.

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Overvoltage when the voltage in a circuit is raised above its upper design limit

When the voltage in a circuit or part of it is raised above its upper design limit, this is known as overvoltage. The conditions may be hazardous. Depending on its duration, the overvoltage event can be transient—a voltage spike—or permanent, leading to a power surge.

Transient voltage suppressor

A transient voltage suppressor or TVS is a general classification of an array of devices that are designed to react to sudden or momentary overvoltage conditions. One such common device used for this purpose is known as the transient voltage suppression diode that is simply a Zener diode designed to protect electronics device against overvoltages. Another design alternative applies a family of products that are known as metal-oxide varistors (MOV) that protect electronic circuits and electrical equipment.

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Selenium rectifier selenium rectifier

A selenium rectifier is a type of metal rectifier, invented in 1933. They were used in power supplies for electronic equipment and in high-current battery-charger applications until they were superseded by silicon diode rectifiers in the late 1960s. The arrival of the alternator in some automobiles was the result of compact, low-cost, high-current silicon rectifiers. These units were small enough to be inside the alternator case, unlike the selenium units that preceded silicon devices.

Surge arrester device to protect electrical equipment from over-voltage transients

A surge arrester is a device to protect electrical equipment from over-voltage transients caused by external (lightning) or internal (switching) events. Also called a surge protection device (SPD) or transient voltage surge suppressor (TVSS), this class of device is used to protect equipment in power transmission and distribution systems. The energy criterion for various insulation material can be compared by impulse ratio. A surge arrester should have a low impulse ratio, so that a surge incident on the surge arrester may be bypassed to the ground instead of passing through the apparatus.

Failure of electronic components Ways electronic elements fail and prevention measures

Electronic components have a wide range of failure modes. These can be classified in various ways, such as by time or cause. Failures can be caused by excess temperature, excess current or voltage, ionizing radiation, mechanical shock, stress or impact, and many other causes. In semiconductor devices, problems in the device package may cause failures due to contamination, mechanical stress of the device, or open or short circuits.

Contact protection methods are designed to mitigate the wear and degradation occurring during the normal use of contacts within an electromechanical switch, relay or contactor and thus avoid an excessive increase in contact resistance or switch failure.


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