How to Determine Optocoupler Operation Saturation or Linear

There are several ways on how to determine Optocoupler operation. The old school method is to build an actual circuit and measure the collector-emitter voltage. If the reading is low enough (equal to the saturation voltage of the device) or ideally zero, the Optocoupler is operating at saturation. If the reading is higher than the specified saturation voltage but lower than the collector supply level, the device is operating at linear mode.

Another method on how to determine Optocoupler operation is through simulation. Simulation is easier than the first mentioned method. However you need to have a simulation software to do so. Another thing is that you need also to understand how the simulation works and how to model circuits. For some designers and engineers, these task are tedious. In addition simulation cannot directly give worst case result. You can get the worst case if you apply in your model. I have also an article that teaching how to do monte carlo analysis (worst case) using LTSpice. You may check it here.

If we are going to rely on actual measurement on how to determine Optocoupler operation, we’re in trouble. It’s not completely a good idea! Imagine if you have several opto circuits in your design, are going to build a sample circuit for all of them and do the test? It’s okay if there are already prototypes, but if you are still in the design stage, actual measurement is a no no approach. Even though you have already the prototypes still it is not a good practice to measure the VCE of all the opto circuits for this consume your time.

As a designer or engineer, you have to found ways to make life easy and speed up the design lead time. In this article I will teach you how to determine the Optocoupler operation using computations.

Ways on How to Determine Optocoupler Operation

Method 1. Comparing the circuit CTR and the Device CTR

Circuit CTR is the ratio of the circuit collector to forward current. On the other hand device CTR is the current transfer ratio defined in the datasheet.

For the circuit to operate in saturation, below criteria must be true. If otherwise, the circuit operates at linear mode.


In this approach on how to determine Optocoupler operation, the Optocoupler circuit is assumed to be saturated. At saturation the collector current is maximum which is only opposed by the collector resistor.

Example 1

To make this clear, let us consider below circuit as an example. Consider Vcc and Vdd are equal to 5V. The device CTR is 120% while the Optocoupler forward voltage drop is 1V.

Figure 1

Solve for the forward current

Solve for the collector current

As mentioned, we are assuming that the circuit is operating at saturation. The collector current is

Ic=\frac{Vcc}{R2}=\frac{5V}{2k\Omega }=2.5mA

Solve for the circuit CTR


The device CTR is 120% as given above. Therefore the above criteria is true and this means that the circuit operates at saturation.


Method 2: Solve for the Circuit Collector-Emitter Voltage VCE and compare to the Device Saturation Voltage

In this technique, the opto circuit is assumed to be operating in the linear region. For it to be true, below criteria must be true. If otherwise, the circuit is operating at saturation.


VCEcircuit is the computed collector-emitter voltage of the Optocoupler while VCEsatdevicemaximum is the specified maximum saturation voltage in the datasheet.

Example 2

Using the same circuit above, let us check the operation using Method 2.

We will not solve the forward current anymore, it’s the same value as the previous example.

Solve for the collector current

Ic=CTR\times If=120%\times 8mA=9.6mA

Solving for the circuit VCE

VCEcircuit=Vcc-IcR2=5V-9.6mA\times2k\Omega =-14.2V

The computed VCE is minus 14.2V. How come it is negative that there is no negative level on the supply voltages?…This is indicating that the circuit is saturation. Let us go back to the criteria above


The computed VCE is very much below zero. The usual saturation voltage of Optocoupler is from 0.7V to below levels so no doubt that that circuit is operating at saturation.

Example 3

Let us replace R2 with 300 ohms in the above circuit and re-check the operation of the circuit.

Using Method 1


The computed circuit CTR is higher than the device CTR. The circuit is operating at linear mode.

Using Method 2

Ic=CTR\times If=120%\times 8mA=9.6mA
VCE=Vcc-IcR2=5V-9.6mA\times 300=2.12V

The computed VCE is higher than the usual saturation voltage. The device is operating in the linear region.

With the two computation methods demonstrated above,  how to determine optoocupler operation is no longer a problem. By following these methods you can ensure that the circuit will operate as designed. If you want a complete optocoupler biasing course, click this. For designing optocoupler circuit from scratch, read this.


  1. Dear Sir,

    You have calculated a If = 800 mA, but used a value of 8 mA in the calculation. Am I missing something?

    Thanks for all your efforts and detailed explaination!

    With kind regards,

  2. Dear Sir,

    Thanks for the explanation. It is very helpful.

    Just a hypothetical question or scenario below.
    Supposed for Example 3 the device CTR is 200 instead of 120.
    The circuit CTR will still be the same at 208.33% (linear mode.)
    But, when Vce is calculated. Vce will only be 0.2V which is less than the saturation voltage which implies it is in saturation mode.
    How will such case be ruled?


    1. Bey,

      Nice question. Circuit designer’s mind always think of a worst case, thus we have worst case analysis and monte carlo. The purpose of these analysis are to eliminate any gray areas and have a defined state. So, for your question, do not bias your opto us such that it will create a gray area. In that case the opto may or may not operate at linear mode. I suggest to have a huge margin between linear and saturation mode.

      Nice question.

  3. Thanks for your prompt reply!

    Just a few more things..

    For Saturation mode this criteria should be true:
    CTRcircuit CTRdeviceminimum.

    In that case for linear mode, how is the Opto CTR margin (i.e. Opto CTR life calculation) considered? or that calculation does not apply for linear mode?


    1. CTR margin means ensuring a defined operation despite of the CTR variation. CTR is affected by the applied forward current, operating ambient temperature and life. Considering all these factors, you can compute for the CTR swing or min/max. If you are running a linear opto circuit, you must design the bias such that within the min/max of the CTR your circuit will remain in the linear mode. For example, the typical or present day CTR value of the opto you are using is 200%. After a year, it will have a computed minimum CTR of 140%, then see to it that you circuit will still operate in the linear region with this minimum value.

      I have some topics more on opto here, you may look at it as well for reference.

  4. Thanks for valuable information.

    I struggled more than 2-3 months to get proper information.
    Finally got it.

    Sachin N S

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