Parametric oscillator

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A parametric oscillator is a driven harmonic oscillator in which the oscillations are driven by varying some parameter of the system at some frequency, typically different from the natural frequency of the oscillator. A simple example of a parametric oscillator is a child pumping a playground swing by periodically standing and squatting to increase the size of the swing's oscillations.[1][2][3] The child's motions vary the moment of inertia of the swing as a pendulum. The "pump" motions of the child must be at twice the frequency of the swing's oscillations. Examples of parameters that may be varied are the oscillator's resonance frequency and damping .

One of the first varactor parametric amplifiers, invented at Bell Labs around 1958. This 4 stage amplifier achieved 10 dB gain at 400 MHz. Parametric amplifiers are used in applications requiring extremely low noise.

Parametric oscillators are used in several areas of physics. The classical varactor parametric oscillator consists of a semiconductor varactor diode connected to a resonant circuit or cavity resonator. It is driven by varying the diode's capacitance by applying a varying bias voltage. The circuit that varies the diode's capacitance is called the "pump" or "driver". In microwave electronics, waveguide/YAG-based parametric oscillators operate in the same fashion. Another important example is the optical parametric oscillator, which converts an input laser light wave into two output waves of lower frequency ().

When operated at pump levels below oscillation, the parametric oscillator can amplify a signal, forming a parametric amplifier (paramp). Varactor parametric amplifiers were developed as low-noise amplifiers in the radio and microwave frequency range. The advantage of a parametric amplifier is that it has much lower noise than an amplifier based on a gain device like a transistor or vacuum tube. This is because in the parametric amplifier a reactance is varied instead of a (noise-producing) resistance. They are used in very low noise radio receivers in radio telescopes and spacecraft communication antennas.[4]

Parametric resonance occurs in a mechanical system when a system is parametrically excited and oscillates at one of its resonant frequencies. Parametric excitation differs from forcing since the action appears as a time varying modification on a system parameter.


Parametric oscillations were first noticed in mechanics. Michael Faraday (1831) was the first to notice oscillations of one frequency being excited by forces of double the frequency, in the crispations (ruffled surface waves) observed in a wine glass excited to "sing".[5] Franz Melde (1860) generated parametric oscillations in a string by employing a tuning fork to periodically vary the tension at twice the resonance frequency of the string.[6] Parametric oscillation was first treated as a general phenomenon by Rayleigh (1883,1887).[7][8][9]

One of the first to apply the concept to electric circuits was George Francis FitzGerald, who in 1892 tried to excite oscillations in an LC circuit by pumping it with a varying inductance provided by a dynamo.[10][11] Parametric amplifiers (paramps) were first used in 1913-1915 for radio telephony from Berlin to Vienna and Moscow, and were predicted to have a useful future (Ernst Alexanderson, 1916).[12] These early parametric amplifiers used the nonlinearity of an iron-core inductor, so they could only function at low frequencies.

In 1948 Aldert van der Ziel pointed out a major advantage of the parametric amplifier: because it used a variable reactance instead of a resistance for amplification it had inherently low noise.[13] A parametric amplifier used as the front end of a radio receiver could amplify a weak signal while introducing very little noise. In 1952 Harrison Rowe at Bell Labs extended some 1934 mathematical work on pumped oscillations by Jack Manley and published the modern mathematical theory of parametric oscillations, the Manley-Rowe relations.[13]

The varactor diode invented in 1956 had a nonlinear capacitance that was usable into microwave frequencies. The varactor parametric amplifier was developed by Marion Hines in 1956 at Western Electric.[13] At the time it was invented microwaves were just being exploited, and the varactor amplifier was the first semiconductor amplifier at microwave frequencies.[13] It was applied to low noise radio receivers in many areas, and has been widely used in radio telescopes, satellite ground stations, and long-range radar. It is the main type of parametric amplifier used today. Since that time parametric amplifiers have been built with other nonlinear active devices such as Josephson junctions.

The technique has been extended to optical frequencies in optical parametric oscillators and amplifiers which use nonlinear crystals as the active element.

Mathematical analysisEdit

A parametric oscillator is a harmonic oscillator whose physical properties vary with time. The equation of such an oscillator is


This equation is linear in  . By assumption, the parameters   and   depend only on time and do not depend on the state of the oscillator. In general,   and/or   are assumed to vary periodically, with the same period  .

If the parameters vary at roughly twice the natural frequency of the oscillator (defined below), the oscillator phase-locks to the parametric variation and absorbs energy at a rate proportional to the energy it already has. Without a compensating energy-loss mechanism provided by  , the oscillation amplitude grows exponentially. (This phenomenon is called parametric excitation, parametric resonance or parametric pumping.) However, if the initial amplitude is zero, it will remain so; this distinguishes it from the non-parametric resonance of driven simple harmonic oscillators, in which the amplitude grows linearly in time regardless of the initial state.

A familiar experience of both parametric and driven oscillation is playing on a swing.[1][2][3] Rocking back and forth pumps the swing as a driven harmonic oscillator, but once moving, the swing can also be parametrically driven by alternately standing and squatting at key points in the swing arc. This changes moment of inertia of the swing and hence the resonance frequency, and children can quickly reach large amplitudes provided that they have some amplitude to start with (e.g., get a push). Standing and squatting at rest, however, leads nowhere.

Transformation of the equationEdit

We begin by making a change of variables


where   is a time integral of the damping


This change of variables eliminates the damping term


where the transformed frequency is defined


In general, the variations in damping and frequency are relatively small perturbations


where   and   are constants, namely, the time-averaged oscillator frequency and damping, respectively.

The transformed frequency can be written in a similar way:


where   is the natural frequency of the damped harmonic oscillator




Thus, our transformed equation can be written


The independent variations   and   in the oscillator damping and resonance frequency, respectively, can be combined into a single pumping function  . The converse conclusion is that any form of parametric excitation can be accomplished by varying either the resonance frequency or the damping, or both.

Solution of the transformed equationEdit

Let us assume that   is sinusoidal, specifically


where the pumping frequency   but need not equal   exactly. The solution   of our transformed equation may be written


where the rapidly varying components have been factored out(  and  ) to isolate the slowly varying amplitudes   and  . This corresponds to Laplace's variation of parameters method.

Substituting this solution into the transformed equation and retaining only the terms first-order in   yields two coupled equations


These equations may be decoupled and solved by making another change of variables


which yields the equations


where for brevity the following are defined


and the detuning


The   equation does not depend on  , and linearization near its equilibrium position   shows that   decays exponentially to its equilibrium


where the decay constant


In other words, the parametric oscillator phase-locks to the pumping signal  .

Taking   (i.e., assuming that the phase has locked), the   equation becomes


whose solution is  ; the amplitude of the   oscillation diverges exponentially. However, the corresponding amplitude   of the untransformed variable   need not diverge


The amplitude   diverges, decays, or stays constant, depending on whether   is greater than, less than, or equal to  , respectively.

The maximum growth rate of the amplitude occurs when  . At that frequency, the equilibrium phase   is zero, implying that   and  . As   is varied from  ,   moves away from zero and  , i.e., the amplitude grows more slowly. For sufficiently large deviations of  , the decay constant   can become purely imaginary since


If the detuning   exceeds  ,   becomes purely imaginary and   varies sinusoidally. Using the definition of the detuning  , the pumping frequency   must lie between   and   in order to achieve exponential growth in  . Expanding the square roots in a binomial series shows that the spread in pumping frequencies that result in exponentially growing   is approximately  .

Intuitive derivation of parametric excitationEdit

The above derivation may seem like a mathematical sleight-of-hand, so it may be helpful to give an intuitive derivation. The   equation may be written in the form


which represents a simple harmonic oscillator (or, alternatively, a bandpass filter) being driven by a signal   that is proportional to its response  .

Assume that   already has an oscillation at frequency   and that the pumping   has double the frequency and a small amplitude  . Applying a trigonometric identity for products of sinusoids, their product   produces two driving signals, one at frequency   and the other at frequency  


Being off-resonance, the   signal is attenuated and can be neglected initially. By contrast, the   signal is on resonance, serves to amplify  , and is proportional to the amplitude  . Hence, the amplitude of   grows exponentially unless it is initially zero.

Expressed in Fourier space, the multiplication   is a convolution of their Fourier transforms   and  . The positive feedback arises because the   component of   converts the   component of   into a driving signal at  , and vice versa (reverse the signs). This explains why the pumping frequency must be near  , twice the natural frequency of the oscillator. Pumping at a grossly different frequency would not couple (i.e., provide mutual positive feedback) between the   and   components of  .

Parametric resonanceEdit

Parametric resonance is the parametrical resonance phenomenon of mechanical perturbation and oscillation at certain frequencies (and the associated harmonics). This effect is different from regular resonance because it exhibits the instability phenomenon.

Parametric resonance occurs in a mechanical system when a system is parametrically excited and oscillates at one of its resonant frequencies. Parametric resonance takes place when the external excitation frequency equals twice the natural frequency of the system. Parametric excitation differs from forcing since the action appears as a time varying modification on a system parameter. The classical example of parametric resonance is that of the vertically forced pendulum.

For small amplitudes and by linearising, the stability of the periodic solution is given by Mathieu's equation:


where   is some perturbation from the periodic solution. Here the   term acts as an ‘energy’ source and is said to parametrically excite the system. The Mathieu equation describes many other physical systems to a sinusoidal parametric excitation such as an LC Circuit where the capacitor plates move sinusoidally.

Parametric amplifiersEdit


A parametric amplifier is implemented as a mixer. The mixer's gain shows up in the output as amplifier gain. The input weak signal is mixed with a strong local oscillator signal, and the resultant strong output is used in the ensuing receiver stages.

Parametric amplifiers also operate by changing a parameter of the amplifier. Intuitively, this can be understood as follows, for a variable capacitor-based amplifier. Charge   in a capacitor obeys:


therefore the voltage across is


Knowing the above, if a capacitor is charged until its voltage equals the sampled voltage of an incoming weak signal, and if the capacitor's capacitance is then reduced (say, by manually moving the plates further apart), then the voltage across the capacitor will increase. In this way, the voltage of the weak signal is amplified.

If the capacitor is a varicap diode, then "moving the plates" can be done simply by applying time-varying DC voltage to the varicap diode. This driving voltage usually comes from another oscillator—sometimes called a "pump".

The resulting output signal contains frequencies that are the sum and difference of the input signal (f1) and the pump signal (f2): (f1 + f2) and (f1 − f2).

A practical parametric oscillator needs the following connections: one for the "common" or "ground", one to feed the pump, one to retrieve the output, and maybe a fourth one for biasing. A parametric amplifier needs a fifth port to input the signal being amplified. Since a varactor diode has only two connections, it can only be a part of an LC network with four eigenvectors with nodes at the connections. This can be implemented as a transimpedance amplifier, a traveling-wave amplifier or by means of a circulator.

Mathematical equationEdit

The parametric oscillator equation can be extended by adding an external driving force  :


We assume that the damping   is sufficiently strong that, in the absence of the driving force  , the amplitude of the parametric oscillations does not diverge, i.e., that  . In this situation, the parametric pumping acts to lower the effective damping in the system. For illustration, let the damping be constant   and assume that the external driving force is at the mean resonance frequency  , i.e.,  . The equation becomes


whose solution is roughly


As   approaches the threshold  , the amplitude diverges. When  , the system enters parametric resonance and the amplitude begins to grow exponentially, even in the absence of a driving force  .


  1. It is highly sensitive
  2. low noise level amplifier for ultra high frequency and microwave radio signal
  3. The unique capability to operate as a wireless powered amplifier that doesn't require internal power source[14]

Other relevant mathematical resultsEdit

If the parameters of any second-order linear differential equation are varied periodically, Floquet analysis shows that the solutions must vary either sinusoidally or exponentially.

The   equation above with periodically varying   is an example of a Hill equation. If   is a simple sinusoid, the equation is called a Mathieu equation.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Case, William. "Two ways of driving a child's swing". Archived from the original on 9 December 2011. Retrieved 27 November 2011. Note: In real-life playgrounds, swings are predominantly driven, not parametric, oscillators.
  2. ^ a b Case, W. B. (1996). "The pumping of a swing from the standing position". American Journal of Physics. 64 (3): 215–220. Bibcode:1996AmJPh..64..215C. doi:10.1119/1.18209.
  3. ^ a b Roura, P.; Gonzalez, J.A. (2010). "Towards a more realistic description of swing pumping due to the exchange of angular momentum". European Journal of Physics. 31 (5): 1195–1207. Bibcode:2010EJPh...31.1195R. doi:10.1088/0143-0807/31/5/020.
  4. ^ Bryerton, Eric; Mayo, Mary (15 May 2015). "Low Noise Amplifiers: Pushing the limits of low noise". National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Retrieved 11 February 2020.
  5. ^ Faraday, M. (1831) "On a peculiar class of acoustical figures; and on certain forms assumed by a group of particles upon vibrating elastic surfaces",[permanent dead link] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (London), 121: 299-318.
  6. ^ Melde, F. (1860) "Über Erregung stehender Wellen eines fadenförmigen Körpers"[permanent dead link] [On the excitation of standing waves on a string], Annalen der Physik und Chemie (2nd series), 109: 193-215.
  7. ^ Strutt, J.W. (Lord Rayleigh) (1883) "On maintained vibrations", Archived August 13, 2016, at the Wayback Machine Philosophical Magazine, 5th series, 15: 229-235.
  8. ^ Strutt, J.W. (Lord Rayleigh) (1887) "On the maintenance of vibrations by forces of double frequency, and on the propagation of waves through a medium endowed with periodic structure",[permanent dead link] Philosophical Magazine, 5th series, 24: 145-159.
  9. ^ Strutt, J.W. (Lord Rayleigh) The Theory of Sound, 2nd. ed. (N.Y., N.Y.: Dover, 1945), vol. 1, pages 81-85.
  10. ^ See:
  11. ^ Hong, Sungook Hong (201). Wireless: From Marconi's Black-Box to the Audion. MIT Press. pp. 158–161. ISBN 978-0262082983.
  12. ^ Alexanderson, Ernst F.W. (April 1916) "A magnetic amplifier for audio telephony"[permanent dead link] Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, 4: 101-149.
  13. ^ a b c d Roer, T.G. (2012). Microwave Electronic Devices. Springer Science and Business Media. p. 7. ISBN 978-1461525004.
  14. ^ Qian, Chunqi (2012). "Sensitivity enhancement of remotely coupled NMR detectors using wirelessly powered parametric amplification". Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. 68 (3): 989–996. doi:10.1002/mrm.23274. PMC 3330139. PMID 22246567.

Further readingEdit

  • Kühn L. (1914) Elektrotech. Z., 35, 816-819.
  • Mumford, WW (1960). "Some Notes on the History of Parametric Transducers". Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers. 48 (5): 848–853. doi:10.1109/jrproc.1960.287620. S2CID 51646108.
  • Pungs L. DRGM Nr. 588 822 (24 October 1913); DRP Nr. 281440 (1913); Elektrotech. Z., 44, 78-81 (1923?); Proc. IRE, 49, 378 (1961).

External articlesEdit