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Unloaded voltage divider

For the purposes of measurement, it is often necessary to tap sub-voltages from a

primary voltage. This is done by means of voltage division. Illustrated below is a voltage
divider consisting of two series-connected resistors R1and R2.

The supply voltage U to the outer terminals and this is then divided into the two subvoltages U1 and U2. According to the voltage division law,

According to Ohm's law, the current in the voltage divider is

and the voltage drop across the two resistors is

If the expression for current as derived above is substituted into these two equations,
the following equations are obtained for the two sub-voltages:

These equations apply only when no current is being tapped from the
voltage divider, i.e. in the no-load state.
The interactive animation below shows a voltage divider whose supply voltage and
resistance values can be adjusted with the mouse. If you modify these variables, you
will be able to observe the corresponding effects on both sub-voltages.

Loaded voltage divider

The voltage divider can be loaded by connecting it to a load (resistor RL in the diagram
below). This load resistance conducts a load current IL, while resistor R2 conducts a
parallel current IQ. Resistor R1 conducts the sum of these two currents. The parallel
current IQ produces heat loss in resistor R2.

For an unloaded voltage divider, the voltage across R2 is proportional to the ratio
between R2 and the total resistance R1 + R2. By contrast, a loaded voltage divider
exhibits a curved characteristic whose deviation from the linear characteristic in the
unloaded state is inversely proportional to the ratio between the load resistance and the
total resistance R1 + R2 in the unloaded state, i.e. directly proportional to the ratio
between the load current and the parallel current across the divider resistor being
loaded. This is because the loaded voltage divider comprises a series connection
between R1 and the parallel connection of R2 and RL. The equivalent resistance R2* of
this parallel circuit is calculated as follows:

Accordingly, the voltage divider's load voltage UL is

The value for the unloaded state is derived by letting the load resistance RL approach
infinity. In this case, the resistance R2 is negligible compared with RL in both
denominator terms:

RL can then be reduced to result in the equation for an unloaded voltage divider as
determined in the previous section. A voltage divider's load voltage is thus always
smaller in the loaded state than in the unloaded (idle) state.
Given UL, the currents IL and IQ can be calculated using Ohm's law and the total current
I is the sum of these two currents.
The interactive animation below shows a voltage divider which can be connected to a
load resistance RL via the button with the red cross. Set different values for the various
resistances and observe the resulting effects on voltage and current in the loaded and
unloaded states. Note especially how sharply the load voltage U L drops in the loaded
state compared with the unloaded state.

Voltage divider with a potentiometer

In actual practice, use is mainly made of a continuously adjustable voltage divider in the
form of a so-called potentiometer. This device has three connections, one of them is a
variable sliding contact permitting the potentiometer's total resistance to be divided into
two partial resistances R1 and R2. As a result, the output voltage U2 present across the
potentiometer's sliding contact can be divided at any point between the full value U (i.e.
the value applied to the potentiometer's outer terminals) and zero. The diagrams below
illustrate the principle of a potentiometer (left) and its circuit symbol (right).

Potentiometers are available in a variety of designs such as rotary and sliding formats.
These two designs are illustrated below (left: rotary potentiometer; right: sliding

The interactive animation below shows a potentiometer whose voltage supply and total
resistance are adjustable. The sliding control on the right is used to vary the tapping
point for the output voltage U2. Move the tap and observe the resulting effects on the
partial resistances and output voltage.