A-level Physics (Advancing Physics)/Sensors

A sensor is a device which converts a physical property into an electrical property (such as resistance). A sensing system is a system (usually a circuit) which allows this electrical property, and so the physical property, to be measured.

Temperature SensorEdit

Use of a potential divider and thermistor to measure temperature

A common example of a sensing system is a temperature sensor in a thermostat, which uses a thermistor. In the most common type of thermistor (an NTC), the resistance decreases as the temperature increases. This effect is achieved by making the thermistor out of a semiconductor. The thermistor is then used in a potential divider, as in the diagram on the right. In this diagram, the potential difference is divided between the resistor and the thermistor. As the temperature rises, the resistance of the thermistor decreases, so the potential difference across it decreases. This means that potential difference across the resistor increases as temperature increases. This is why the voltmeter is across the resistor, not the thermistor.


There are three main properties of sensing systems you need to know about:


This is the amount of change in voltage output per unit change in input (the physical property). For example, in the above sensing system, if the voltage on the voltmeter increased by 10V as the temperature increased by 6.3 °C:



This is the smallest change in the physical property detectable by the sensing system. Sometimes, the limiting factor is the number of decimal places the voltmeter can display. So if, for example, the voltmeter can display the voltage to 2 decimal places, the smallest visible change in voltage is 0.01V. We can then use the sensitivity of the sensor to calculate the resolution.


<math>R = \frac{0.01}{

Response TimeEdit

This is the time the sensing system takes to display a change in the physical property it is measuring. It is often difficult to measure.

Signal AmplificationEdit

Sometimes, a sensing system gives a difference in output voltage, but the sensitivity is far too low to be of any use. There are two solutions to this problem, which can be used together:


An Amplifier is an electronic device or circuit which is used to increase the magnitude of the signal applied to its input. An Amplifier is a generic term used to describe a circuit which produces and increased version of its input signal. An amplifier can be placed in the system, increasing the signal. The main problem with this is that the signal cannot exceed the maximum voltage of the system, so values will be chopped off of the top and bottom of the signal because it is so high.

Wheatstone BridgeEdit

A wheatstone bridge, using a thermistor

This solution is far better, especially when used prior to amplification. Instead of using just one pair of resistors, a second pair is used, and the potential difference between the two pairs (which are connected in parallel) is measured. This means that, if, at the sensing resistor (e.g. thermistor / LDR) the resistance is at its maximum, a signal of 0V is produced. This means that the extremes of the signal are not chopped off, making for a much better sensor.


An LDR's resistance decreases from a maximum resistance of 2kΩ to a minimum resistance of 0Ω as light intensity increases. It is used in a distance sensing system which consists of a 9V power supply, a 1.6 kΩ resistor, the LDR and a multimeter which displays voltage to 2 decimal places measuring the potential difference across one of the two resistors.

1. Across which resistor should the multimeter be connected in order to ensure that, as the distance from the light source to the sensor increases, the potential difference recorded increases?

2. In complete darkness, what voltage is recorded on the multimeter?

3. When a light source moves 0.5m away from the sensor, the voltage on the multimeter increases by 2V. What is the sensitivity of the sensing system when using this light source, in V m−1?

4. When the same light source is placed 0m from the sensor, the potential difference is 0V. When the light source is 1m away, what voltage is displayed on the multimeter?

5. What is the resolution of the sensing system?

6. Draw a circuit diagram showing a similar sensing system to this, using a Wheatstone bridge and amplifier to improve the sensitivity of the system.

7. What is the maximum potential difference that can reach the amplifier using this new system (ignore the amplification)?

8. If this signal were to be amplified 3 times, would it exceed the maximum voltage of the system? What would the limits on the signal be?

Worked Solutions