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What are power planes for Printed Circuit Boards (PCB)?

While the design of a particular electronic device is paramount to its proper functionality, one of the most important aspects of design is to ensure that a device is capable of turning on. Without the ability for a device to properly switch on and be powered, all the advanced materials and components within the assembly are little more than paperweights. In order for a steady supply of voltage to be provided to a circuit and all of its connected components, printed circuit boards (PCB) utilize what are known as power planes.

Also referred to as a VCC when discussing PCB construction, power planes come in the form of flat copper planes that are joined to the power supply of a system. With their use, power may be drawn from a power source and directed to the PCB in a steady voltage supply. For voltage to traverse the plane and through a circuit, one simply needs to create a trace to a via which is in contact with the plane.

When procuring power planes for an assembly, one may notice that most are found installed in PCBs that feature four or more layers. This is a result of standard multi-layer stackup design as even numbers of layers prevent asymmetry that can pose risks of damage in the form of twisting or warping. Additionally, having an odd number of layers does not typically save much money in regard to design and construction. For PCBs that feature two layers, a ground plane may be more optimal as compared to a power plane, taking advantage of tracks for power delivery.

For boards with more layers, there are a number of reasons that one may wish to use a power plane. For one, power planes enhance the decoupling between circuits, and the plane surface is used to establish a parallel plate decoupling capacitor between the insulating layer and ground plane. This is useful as it prevents noise from traveling from the power supply and between circuits. Another benefit of power planes is their short return paths, leading to increased EMC performance. Lastly, power planes are capable of taking on more current as compared to tracks or traces, allowing for operating temperatures to be kept low for increased performance.

As PCB designs have become increasingly complex with the addition of components featuring varying voltage requirements, many power planes have been split into multiple domains to accommodate diverse power needs. For instance, an MCU and I/O port both may require different voltage levels, thus splitting the board can accommodate each need while saving space in the assembly. Nevertheless, these procedures can result in increased noise, crosstalk, or other EMI or EMC issues. While one could take advantage of separate power rails for every circuit, a ground plane would still be needed for achieving shorter return paths and for noise absorption.

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