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In physics and engineering the quality factor or Q factor is a dimensionless parameter that describes how under-damped an oscillator or resonator is, or equivalently, characterizes a resonator's bandwidth relative to its center frequency. Higher Q indicates a lower rate of energy loss relative to the stored energy of the resonator; the oscillations die out more slowly. A pendulum suspended from a high-quality bearing, oscillating in air, has a high Q, while a pendulum immersed in oil has a low one. Resonators with high quality factors have low damping so that they ring longer.
Sinusoidally driven resonators having higher Q factors resonate with greater amplitudes (at the resonant frequency) but have a smaller range of frequencies around that frequency for which they resonate; the range of frequencies for which the oscillator resonates is called the bandwidth. Thus, a high-Q tuned circuit in a radio receiver would be more difficult to tune, but would have more selectivity; it would do a better job of filtering out signals from other stations that lie nearby on the spectrum. High-Q oscillators oscillate with a smaller range of frequencies and are more stable. (See oscillator phase noise.)
The quality factor of oscillators varies substantially from system to system. Systems for which damping is important (such as dampers keeping a door from slamming shut) have Q near ½. Clocks, lasers, and other resonating systems that need either strong resonance or high frequency stability have high quality factors. Tuning forks have quality factors around 1000. The quality factor of atomic clocks, superconducting RF cavities used in accelerators, and some high-Q lasers can reach as high as 1011 and higher.
There are many alternative quantities used by physicists and engineers to describe how damped an oscillator is. Important examples include: the damping ratio, relative bandwidth, linewidth and bandwidth measured in octaves.
The concept of "Q" originated with K.S. Johnson of Western Electric Company's Engineering Department while evaluating the quality of coils (inductors). His choice of the symbol Q was only because all other letters of the alphabet were taken. The term was not intended as an abbreviation for "quality" or "quality factor", although these terms have grown to be associated with it.
In the context of resonators, Q is defined in terms of the ratio of the energy stored in the resonator to the energy supplied by a generator, per cycle, to keep signal amplitude constant, at a frequency (the resonant frequency), fr, where the stored energy is constant with time:
The factor 2π makes Q expressible in simpler terms, involving only the coefficients of the second-order differential equation describing most resonant systems, electrical or mechanical. In electrical systems, the stored energy is the sum of energies stored in lossless inductors and capacitors; the lost energy is the sum of the energies dissipated in resistors per cycle. In mechanical systems, the stored energy is the maximum possible stored energy, or the total energy, i.e. the sum of the potential and kinetic energies at some point in time; the lost energy is the work done by an external conservative force, per cycle, to maintain amplitude.
For high values of Q, the following definition is also mathematically accurate:
where fr is the resonant frequency, Δf is the half-power bandwidth i.e. the bandwidth over which the power of vibration is greater than half the power at the resonant frequency, ωr = 2πfr is the angular resonant frequency, and Δω is the angular half-power bandwidth.
More generally and in the context of reactive component specification (especially inductors), the frequency-dependent definition of Q is used:
where ω is the angular frequency at which the stored energy and power loss are measured. This definition is consistent with its usage in describing circuits with a single reactive element (capacitor or inductor), where it can be shown to be equal to the ratio of reactive power to real power. (See Individual reactive components.)
The Q factor determines the qualitative behavior of simple damped oscillators. (For mathematical details about these systems and their behavior see harmonic oscillator and linear time invariant (LTI) system.)
In negative feedback systems, the dominant closed-loop response is often well-modeled by a second-order system. The phase margin of the open-loop system sets the quality factor Q of the closed-loop system; as the phase margin decreases, the approximate second-order closed-loop system is made more oscillatory (i.e., has a higher quality factor).
Physically speaking, Q is times the ratio of the total energy stored divided by the energy lost in a single cycle or equivalently the ratio of the stored energy to the energy dissipated over one radian of the oscillation.
It is a dimensionless parameter that compares the exponential time constant τ for decay of an oscillating physical system's amplitude to its oscillation period. Equivalently, it compares the frequency at which a system oscillates to the rate at which it dissipates its energy.
Equivalently (for large values of Q), the Q factor is approximately the number of oscillations required for a freely oscillating system's energy to fall off to , or about 1/535 or 0.2%, of its original energy.
The width (bandwidth) of the resonance is given by
The resonant frequency is often expressed in natural units (radians per second), rather than using the in hertz, as
and the damping ratio can be expressed as:
The envelope of oscillation decays proportional to or , where α and τ can be expressed as:
The energy of oscillation, or the power dissipation, decays twice as fast, that is, as the square of the amplitude, as or .
For this system, when (i.e., when the system is underdamped), it has two complex conjugate poles that each have a real part of . That is, the attenuation parameter represents the rate of exponential decay of the oscillations (that is, of the output after an impulse) into the system. A higher quality factor implies a lower attenuation rate, and so high-Q systems oscillate for many cycles. For example, high-quality bells have an approximately pure sinusoidal tone for a long time after being struck by a hammer.
For a parallel RLC circuit, the Q factor is the inverse of the series case:
Consider a circuit where R, L and C are all in parallel. The lower the parallel resistance, the more effect it will have in damping the circuit and thus the lower the Q. This is useful in filter design to determine the bandwidth.
In a parallel LC circuit where the main loss is the resistance of the inductor, R, in series with the inductance, L, Q is as in the series circuit. This is a common circumstance for resonators, where limiting the resistance of the inductor to improve Q and narrow the bandwidth is the desired result.
The Q of an individual reactive component depends on the frequency at which it is evaluated, which is typically the resonant frequency of the circuit that it is used in. The Q of an inductor with a series loss resistance is the same as the Q of a resonant circuit using that inductor with a perfect capacitor:
The Q of a capacitor with a series loss resistance is the same as the Q of a resonant circuit using that capacitor with a perfect inductor:
In general, the Q of a resonator involving a series combination of a capacitor and an inductor can be determined from the Q values of the components, whether their losses come from series resistance or otherwise:
For a single damped mass-spring system, the Q factor represents the effect of simplified viscous damping or drag, where the damping force or drag force is proportional to velocity. The formula for the Q factor is:
where M is the mass, k is the spring constant, and D is the damping coefficient, defined by the equation , where is the velocity.
where is the resonant frequency, is the stored energy in the cavity, and is the power dissipated. The optical Q is equal to the ratio of the resonant frequency to the bandwidth of the cavity resonance. The average lifetime of a resonant photon in the cavity is proportional to the cavity's Q. If the Q factor of a laser's cavity is abruptly changed from a low value to a high one, the laser will emit a pulse of light that is much more intense than the laser's normal continuous output. This technique is known as Q-switching.
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