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The Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green
1
Digital Barriers (ThruVision)
Abstract
The current radiometer equation in widespread use is
2
f
T
T
SYS
=
which is a scaled value of a measured system noise temperature.
A new equation is derived which effectively gives a fundamental limit on the system noise
temperature, independent of imperfections within the system components.
f k
T f h
T
C
IDEAL
=
1
0
The approximation for noise power, f kT P
N
, is examined and found to be
inappropriate for use in the mmwave region when operating well below 77K. A new
approximation formula is presented which accurately works down to 0.5K and at
mmwave frequencies,





\



\

+


\

+


\

+
3
0
2
0 0
2 2 2
1
1
f h
T k
f h
T k
f h
T k
f kT P
N
Radiometers are shown to become remarkably insensitive at cryogenic target
temperatures, the sensitivity dropping by half at a (Kelvin) temperature given by
k
f h
T
3
0
% 50
=
1
The author has been designing, building, testing, and characterising roomtemperature radiometers
operating around a 250GHz centre frequency for the past 8 years.
2
Kraus, J.D. (Tiuri, M.E.), 'System Noise' in Radio Astronomy, (McGrawHill Book Company, 1966), p. 244.
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 2 of 15 18 Jan 2013
Noise Power
If measuring the noise power from a resistor we should use Nyquists equation,
3
modified
by the inclusion of the zeropoint energy.
4




\

+
\

=
U
L
f
f
N
df
hf
kT
hf
hf
P
2
1 exp
Where h is the Planck constant, 6.610
34
Js
k is the Boltzmann constant, 1.3810
23
J/K
f is the operational frequency, Hz
T is the temperature, K (using the degree symbol to avoid confusion with
k which is usually represented by K in
electronics work)
And using the subscripts U and L to represent the Upper and Lower input frequencies
respectively, signifying ideally sharp (brickwall ) cutoff frequencies.
It is not very convenient to work with the above integral so we approximate the integral as
f kT P
N
(see Appendix 1) noting carefully that this approximation is accurate in a range
f < 1 THz (which could also be expressed as f < 1000 GHz)
T > 77K
but is highly inaccurate at much lower temperatures.
3
H Nyquist, 'Thermal Agitation of Electric Charge in Conductors', in Physical Review, 32 (July 1928), pp.
110113.
4
Van Der Ziel, A., 'History of Noise Research', in Advances in Electronics and Electron Physics, 50 (1980),
p. 377.
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 3 of 15 18 Jan 2013
Power Fluctuations
Now
N
P is a mean power level, measured in Watts, and measurable (in principle) with a
power meter. But one might then reasonably ask what the noise is on this quantity. If, for
example, a moving coil power meter had a fast responding needle, how noisy would the
reading be?
We are used to random variables being modelled by a Gaussian distribution where the
mean and variance
2
are independent variables. Looking first at a binomial
distribution, we see that the mean is given by
P N =
where N is the number of events and P is the probability of a particular outcome. The
variance is then given by
( ) P P N = 1
2
For low probability events, P is small so that ( ) 1 1 P and
2
. Expressed in words,
the mean value is equal to the variance.
We then look at a Poisson distribution and see that it is modelled based on low probability
events from lots and lots of independent sources, which is exactly what we expect when
looking at the aggregated response from electronic fluctuations at the atomic level. The
final step is to realise that the Gaussian distribution is used to model both Binomial and
Poisson distributions.
Notice in the examples given above that the mean and variance are both dimensionless
quantities. This is essential since the mean, variance, and standard deviation then all have
the same units (none). Also notice that both the mean and the variance are proportional to
the number of events and hence to the measurement interval.
Shot Noise
If we consider radiant energy (photons) arriving in a unit of time we have a situation
analogous to the arrival of electrons crossing a barrier as used in the derivation of the shot
noise formula.
5
For shot noise we consider a mean current
S
I which is generated by a number of
electrons n arriving within a measurement interval . Then
e
n I
S
= , where the bar over
the n represents a mean value. Rearranging this we find
e
I
n
S
= .
Equating the mean and variance gives ( )
2
n n
e
I
n
S
= =
. Note that it is not the mean
current and the variance of the current that are equal, it is the mean number of electrons
5
Van der Ziel, A., 'Fluctuations in Cathode Emission', in Noise (New York: PrenticeHall Inc, 1954), pp. 90
92.
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 4 of 15 18 Jan 2013
arriving and the variance of that number which are equal. Both the mean current and the
standard deviation of the current are dimensionally equal to Amps.
If, at the end of the time interval , we have received a different number of electrons than
the mean number, we have a current deviation, ( ) n n
e
i =
S S
eI
e
I e
n
e
n n
e
i =
\

= 
\

= 
\

=
2 2 2
2
which is readily
seen to have the correct dimensions of amps squared, since [coulombs/second] = [amps].
Photon Noise
For a radiometer we consider the arrival of individual photons at the detector analogously
to electrons crossing a barrier. Instead of [coulombs/second] = [amps] we expect
[joules/second] = [watts].
If n is the number of photons arriving at the detector during a measurement interval ,
where each photon has an energy of , then the mean power is
= n P
N
.
Therefore ( )
2
n n P n
N
= =
If, at the end of the time interval , we have received a different number of photons than
the mean number, we have a power deviation
( ) n n p =
The variance of the power deviation is
( )
N N
P P n n n p = = = =
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
From which we get the standard deviation (the AC RMS value)
N
P P =
Watts
To find the minimum resolvable T of a system
6
we view an ideal
7
cold target and
measure both the standard deviation of the noise,
. Then we
measure the mean noise for an ideal hot target,
H
P
K
6
which we will call T for brevity and read as deltaTee.
7
a blackbody target at a constant temperature across the field of view.
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 5 of 15 18 Jan 2013
From our theoretical analysis we can now set a lower bound on the T of an ideal system.
( )
NC NH
NC
C H IDEAL
P P
P
T T T
K
Until we use an approximation equation for
N
P we cant get very far with this.
Using f kT P
N
we get
( )
( )
f
k
T
f T T k
f kT
T T T
C
C H
C
C H IDEAL
=
=
1
K
This equation shows a significant feature in the form of the term. A higher photon
energy results in a worse (larger) T . A moments thought and the reason, apart from the
maths, is obvious. The photon arrivals are discrete events. Less of them means a higher
granularity and therefore a worse noise performance.
We can then use Plancks relation,
0
f h = , with
0
f as the centre frequency, to give
f k
T f h
T
C
IDEAL
=
1
0
K
Although we have to appreciate that this formula is not valid for K 77 <
C
T when operating
up to 1 THz.
Comparing this to the standard radiometer equation, which would typically be written as
f
T
T
SYS
=
K
we see that the variation with measurement interval and RF bandwidth is identical.
The term K 12
0
=
k
f h
(for operation at 250GHz) is independent of the measurement
system and sets a fundamental measurement limit.
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 6 of 15 18 Jan 2013
Cryogenic Operation
Cryogenic radiometers are not uncommon and it would be helpful to extend the preceding
analysis to liquid Helium temperatures and below. Appendix 2 shows that a relatively
simple fulltemperature approximation to the power integral is possible, but for some
reason this approximation, and others for the whole integral, do not yield useful results in
terms of an ideal radiometer equation.
The problem is seen by plotting the power integral over temperature at mmwave
frequencies (using Mathcad).
df 1 10
9
:= h 6.6 10
34
:= k 1.38 10
23
:= T 0.5 0.6 , 200 .. :=
P F T , ( )
F
df
2
F
df
2
+
f
h f
exp
h f
k T

\


1
h f
2
+

\



(
(
(
(
(
d := RJ F T , ( ) df k T :=
0.1 1 10 100 1
.
10
3
0
5
.
10
13
1
.
10
12
1.5
.
10
12
2
.
10
12
2.5
.
10
12
3
.
10
12
Integrated Power variation with Temperature for 1GHz bandwidth
Temperature (K)
P 100 10
9
T ,
( )
P 500 10
9
T ,
( )
P 1000 10
9
T ,
( )
RJ 500 10
9
T ,
( )
T
Now it is easy to see that below about 10K the available power is relatively unchanging.
This is a real problem for a radiometer monitoring targets below the 4K region because its
sensitivity to temperature fluctuations is almost zero. We can see this sensitivity more
clearly by plotting dP/dT, evaluated numerically by using a 0.1K temperature difference
and scaling the result by 10.
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 7 of 15 18 Jan 2013
dP F T , ( ) 10 P F T 0.1 + , ( ) P F T , ( ) ( ) :=
0.1 1 10 100 1
.
10
3
0
2
.
10
15
4
.
10
15
6
.
10
15
8
.
10
15
1
.
10
14
1.2
.
10
14
dP/dT variation with Temperature for 1GHz bandwidth
Temperature (K)
dP 100 10
9
T ,
( )
dP 300 10
9
T ,
( )
dP 1000 10
9
T ,
( )
df k
T
Notice that this sensitivity function, dP/dT, is independent of the decision to include the
zero point energy since the zero point energy is independent of temperature and its
derivative is therefore zero.
As an aside, the zero point energy part of the power integral is nicely separable and its
integral produces a simple result, despite the initial apparent complexity.
df
f h df
f
df
f
h f h
df
f h
df
f
df
f
df
f
df
f
=
(
(
\


\

+ =
(
2 2 2 4 4 2
0
2
0
2
0
2
2
2
2
2
0
0
0
0
The use of the zeropoint energy term in radio astronomy is discussed in detail in an ALMA
memo.
8
8
Kerr, A.R., Feldman, M.J, and Pan, S.K., 'Receiver Noise Temperature, the Quantum Noise Limit, and the
Role of the ZeroPoint Fluctuations', MMA Memo 161 (8th Int. Symp. on Space Terahertz Tech: 1997
(1996)).
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 8 of 15 18 Jan 2013
Radiometer Sensitivity at Cryogenic Temperatures
Rather than viewing the sensitivity function in absolute power terms, it is convenient to
normalise the power change relative to the f k
dT
dP
= approximation.
0.1 1 10 100
0
0.1
0.2
0.3
0.4
0.5
0.6
0.7
0.8
0.9
1
Radiometer Sensitivity at Low Temperatures
Temperature (K)
dP 100 10
9
T ,
( )
df k
dP 300 10
9
T ,
( )
df k
dP 1000 10
9
T ,
( )
df k
T
Now we can clearly see that a 300GHz radiometer viewing a 3K source has 5 lower
sensitivity than might be expected from calibration using a higher temperature target.
Clearly such considerations are significant for those measuring the Cosmic Microwave
Background (CMB) and interpreting earlier data from the COBE
9
satellite (COsmic
Background Explorer). The FIRAS instrument in particular was doing a null test between
the CMB and a reference target at roughly 2.8K.
These sensitivity drops are understandable in terms of the classical equipartition theory
equated to Plancks relation. If the molecular motion is small, there is not enough energy
available to create a high frequency photon.
9
http://lambda.gsfc.nasa.gov/product/cobe/
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 9 of 15 18 Jan 2013
We therefore equate the average translational kinetic energy T k
2
3
with half the photon
energy
2
f h
in order to get the 50% point in the sensitivity curve, giving
k
f h
T
3
0
% 50
=
At 300GHz the predicted 50% sensitivity point is at 4.78K whilst the numerical integral
gives 4.76K.
We can also give safe guidance for the lowest target temperature of a radiometer as
k
f h
T
C
0
2
> using 6 the 50% sensitivity point.
Conclusions
Radiometers which are viewing noncryogenic targets cannot be made arbitrarily sensitive
as they are subject to fundamental measurement limits.
Radiometers viewing cryogenic targets
10
become unworkable (insensitive) at Kelvin
temperatures much lower than
k
f h
3
0
, regardless of the measurement method used.
Acknowledgement
I would like to thank Dr. Chris Mann for getting me started in the field of THz radiometric
imaging, for useful technical discussions over the years, and for his strenuous personal
efforts to raise capital and keep Thruvision going against all the odds. Without his efforts
this work would not have been possible.
10
Note carefully that it is not the temperature of the radiometer itself that is the critical issue here, it is the
temperature of the target or the scene being viewed that is critical.
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 10 of 15 18 Jan 2013
Appendix 1: Simple Approximation of the Power Integral
The intractable power integral,





\

+


\

=
U
L
f
f
N
df
f h
T k
f h
f h
P
2
1 exp
W
is typically simplified to f T k P
N
as follows
Put =
T k
f h
. For small values of use ( ) + 1 exp
In order to use this approximation with less than 1% error we need 148 . 0 < . However this
is an unsafe approximation at the level of 1% because we neglected the fact that the
approximation will immediately be subtracted from 1, exaggerating the error. If we try to
achieve the same 1% error now we need 02 . 0 < which does not seem very convenient
for our purposes.
We have h = 6.6 10
34
Js
k = 1.38 10
23
J/K
Suppose we pick
f < 1 THz
T > 77K
These choices make 621 . 0 < showing that we definitely need a more accurate
approximation formula for the exponential term.
( ) ( )
2
278 . 0 1 1 exp + is accurate to 1% under the conditions stated.
The approximation was expressed in this form knowing that the next step would be a
partial fraction expansion of the denominator in the integral.
( ) ( )
2
2
2
1
2 1
1
1
+
+
=
+ a
a a
a
But that is still not a very convenient result, in terms of the subsequent integration, so we
try a direct approximation for the reciprocal of the denominator instead.
( )
5 . 0
1
0829 . 0
1 exp
1
+
This is an extraordinarily good approximation which allows us to rewrite the bracket within
the integral
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 11 of 15 18 Jan 2013
( )
T k
f h
T k
f h
T k
f h
f h
2
0829 . 0
2
1 exp
+ =





\

+


\

Now we are now in a position to evaluate the original integral.
( )
( )
3
0829 . 0
2
1 exp
3 3 2
L U
L U
f
f
N
f f
T k
h
f f T k df
f h
T k
f h
f h
P
U
L
+





\

+


\

=
W
If we use the substitutions
2
0
f
f f
U
+ = ,
2
0
f
f f
L
=
Then
3 2
0
2
0
3
0
3
2 2
3
2
3 
\

+ 
\

+ 
\

+ =
f f
f
f
f f f
U
3 2
0
2
0
3
0
3
2 2
3
2
3 
\


\

+ 
\

=
f f
f
f
f f f
L
So that
4
3
3
2
0
3 3
f
f f f f
L U
+ =
Put
m
f
f
0
= with 3 > m
Then 
\

+ =
2
2
0
3 3
12
1
1 3
m
f f f f
L U
We can therefore neglect the bracket with much less than 1% error overall.
( )
(
(


\

+ =
+
2
0
2
0
0829 . 0 1
0829 . 0
T k
f h
f kT f
T k
f h
f kT P
N
W
With all the previous requirements for the approximation formulae, the second term in the
square bracket is less than 0.032, meaning we can neglect it with less than 3.2% error.
In summary, f T k P
N
W
provided f < 1 THz
T > 77K
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 12 of 15 18 Jan 2013
We might refer to this as the low frequency, high temperature model, the meaning of low
and high being associated with the boundaries shown above.
We can verify all the mathematical manipulations in one go by plotting the ratio of the
approximation and the numerically integrated exact value using Mathcad. We can then
readily see the dominant 3.2% error at 77K and 1000GHz.
df 10 10
9
:= h 6.6 10
34
:= k 1.38 10
23
:= T 77 77.2 , 350 .. :=
R F T , ( )
1
df k T
F
df
2
F
df
2
+
f
h f
exp
h f
k T

\


1
h f
2
+

\



(
(
(
(
(
d :=
60 80 100 120 140 160 180 200 220 240 260 280 300 320 340 360
1
1.005
1.01
1.015
1.02
1.025
1.03
Approximation Ratio  Variation with Temperature
Temperature (K)
R 100 10
9
T ,
( )
R 500 10
9
T ,
( )
R 1000 10
9
T ,
( )
T
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 13 of 15 18 Jan 2013
We can use the same Mathcad worksheet to see how bad the approximation becomes at
low cryogenic temperatures.
To really understand this plot, look at 5K on the 1000GHz (black) line. The
approximation is wrong by a factor of 5.
0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35
0
2
4
6
8
10
12
14
16
18
20
22
24
Approximation Ratio  Variation with Temperature
Temperature (K)
R 100 10
9
T ,
( )
R 500 10
9
T ,
( )
R 1000 10
9
T ,
( )
T
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 14 of 15 18 Jan 2013
Appendix 2: Full Range Approximation for the Power Integral




\

+
\

=
U
L
f
f
N
df
hf
kT
hf
hf
P
2
1 exp
Starting from the same integral we now want an approximation that works down to 0.5K.
The numerical integration procedure becomes inaccurate below this level. Now we seek a
multiplier for the f kT P
N
value such that the result approximates the correct value
over a much broader range of temperature.
Our new operating parameters are chosen as
f > 100 GHz
T < 350K
An exhaustive numerical search for approximations
11
eventually yielded a new formula
(
(
(
(
(


\

+


\

2
9
0
9
0
9
0
10
1730
10
5 . 45 1
10
0237 . 0
f
T
f
T
f
T f k P
N
In the process of eliminating the dimensioned constants the final form gradually emerged.





\



\

+


\

+


\

+
3
0
2
0 0
2 2 2
1
1
f h
T k
f h
T k
f h
T k
f kT P
N
This formula has been tested over the range of 1MHz to 5000GHz and 0.5K to 350K and
found to be accurate to better than 3.5%. Marginal improvement is possible on the error
amount by tweaking the constants slightly, but that detracts from the simplicity and
symmetry of the above formula.
NOTE: Do not use the above formula to numerically evaluate
dT
dP
. Subtracting the two
nearly equal values exaggerates the error in the formula and makes the result horribly
inaccurate.
11
The search consisted of taking the numerical integration data from Mathcad (version 13), exporting it to
MS Excel (version 2003), importing the data from Excel into Eureqa Formulize (version 0.98.1) and picking a
suitably accurate but simple approximation. This process was iterated until a good solution was found.
Fundamental Radiometer Equation
Leslie Green 15 of 15 18 Jan 2013
Mathcad worksheet showing the accuracy of the approximation formula
max 150 := n 0 1 , max .. := T n ( ) 1.04
n
0.5 := T max ( ) 358.423 =
df 10 10
9
:= h 6.6 10
34
:= k 1.38 10
23
:=
R F T , ( )
1
df k T 1
1
2 k T
h F

\


2 k T
h F

\


2
+
2 k T
h F

\


3
+
+
(
(
(
(
F
df
2
F
df
2
+
f
h f
exp
h f
k T

\


1
h f
2
+

\



(
(
(
(
(
d :=
0.1 1 10 100 1
.
10
3
0.965
0.97
0.975
0.98
0.985
0.99
0.995
1
1.005
1.01
Approximation Ratio  Variation with Temperature
Temperature (K)
R 100 10
9
T n ( ) ,
( )
R 1000 10
9
T n ( ) ,
( )
R 2500 10
9
T n ( ) ,
( )
R 5000 10
9
T n ( ) ,
( )
T n ( )
The df value was varied in the range 0.01GHz to 100GHz and the curves were almost
unchanged.
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