EMC FLEX BLOG A site dedicated to Automotive EMC Testing for Electronic Modules

PCB Signal Return & Power Return Planes

14. December 2020 11:39 by Christian in EMC/EMI, Grounding, PCB
Diverting a return current path over a longer route can cause both radiated emissions and

See Differential Mode vs Common Mode Current

Diverting a return current path over a longer route can cause both radiated emissions and RF immunity issues. At frequencies above 100 kHz, the return current flows along the path of least impedance (e.g. directly under the signal or clock trace).

Splitting the analog and digital return planes, noisy digital return currents will stay out of the sensitive analog area. Runing digital signal traces across isolated analog areas can contaminate the analog area. The two planes are generally connected together at the PC board power connector.

In a scenario with a single return plane the critical part is routing the signal traces (and corresponding return currents) so they don't cross the A/D boundary. 

Stitching capacitors allow a path for return currents to get back to the source when crossing multiple planes with differing potentials (e.g. power and signal return planes). They need to be located as closely as possible to where the high frequency trace penetrates the planes. The value is not critical (1 to 10 nF), but should present a low impedance at the frequency in question (plus harmonics). 

Multiple vias will provide multiple paths back to the source. At really high frequencies (above 500 MHz into the GHz region), the power and power return planes can form a cavity resonance and causeradiated emissions. Adding a pattern of stitching capacitors can help break up this resonance. There are also experiments on the use of “lossy” bypass capacitors (high ESR) mounted around the board that serve to damp the resonances. 

Approaching frequencies above 100 MHz, the series inductance can become significant. Therefore a classic via would work better than a zero-Ohm resistor, depending on the connecting traces. 

Number of PCB Layers

From an EMC standpoint, eight, or more, layers has proven best. The problem with four or six-layer board designs is that it becomes very difficult to define a solid lowimpedance return path when running high speed signals and clock traces through multiple power/return planes. The power and signal/power return planes to be as close together as possible and sometimes this is difficult to

Trace Length

The general rule of thumb is that if a trace (or cable) is electrically 1/20th wavelength, or less, then it becomes a very inefficient radiating structure. As the length starts to approach a half-wavelength, then it becomes an efficient antenna.