Getting Sparks from Water with Lord Kelvin’s Thunderstorm

In the comments to our recent article about Wimshurst machines, we saw that some hackers had never heard of them, reminding us that we all have different backgrounds and much to share. Well here’s one I’m guessing even fewer will have heard of. It’s never even shown up in a single Hackaday article, something that was also pointed out in a comment to that Wimshurst article. It is the Lord Kelvin’s Water Dropper aka Lord Kelvin’s Thunderstorm, invented in the 1860s by William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, the same fellow for whom the Kelvin temperature scale is named.  It’s a device that produces a high voltage and sparks from falling drops of water.

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Shut Up and Say Something: Amateur Radio Digital Modes

In a recent article, I lamented my distaste for carrying on the classic amateur radio conversation — calling CQ, having someone from far away or around the block call back, exchange call signs and signal reports and perhaps a few pleasantries. I think the idle chit-chat is a big turn-off to a lot of folks who would otherwise be interested in the World’s Greatest Hobby™, but thankfully there are plenty of ways for the mic-shy to get on the air. So as a public service I’d like to go over some of the many digital modes amateur radio offers as a way to avoid talking while still communicating.

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Say It With Me: Aliasing

Suppose you take a few measurements of a time-varying signal. Let’s say for concreteness that you have a microcontroller that reads some voltage 100 times per second. Collecting a bunch of data points together, you plot them out — this must surely have come from a sine wave at 35 Hz, you say. Just connect up the dots with a sine wave! It’s as plain as the nose on your face.

And then some spoil-sport comes along and draws in a version of your sine wave at -65 Hz, and then another at 135 Hz. And then more at -165 Hz and 235 Hz or -265 Hz and 335 Hz. And then an arbitrary number of potential sine waves that fit the very same data, all spaced apart at positive and negative integer multiples of your 100 Hz sampling frequency. Soon, your very pretty picture is looking a bit more complicated than you’d bargained for, and you have no idea which of these frequencies generated your data. It seems hopeless! You go home in tears.

But then you realize that this phenomenon gives you super powers — the power to resolve frequencies that are significantly higher than your sampling frequency. Just as the 235 Hz wave leaves an apparent 35 Hz waveform in the data when sampled at 100 Hz, a 237 Hz signal will look like 37 Hz. You can tell them apart even though they’re well beyond your ability to sample that fast. You’re pulling in information from beyond the Nyquist limit!

This essential ambiguity in sampling — that all frequencies offset by an integer multiple of the sampling frequency produce the same data — is called “aliasing”. And understanding aliasing is the first step toward really understanding sampling, and that’s the first step into the big wide world of digital signal processing.

Whether aliasing corrupts your pristine data or provides you with super powers hinges on your understanding of the effect, and maybe some judicious pre-sampling filtering, so let’s get some knowledge.

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How Does a Voltage Multiplier Work?

If you need a high voltage, a voltage multiplier is one of the easiest ways to obtain it. A voltage multiplier is a specialized type of rectifier circuit that converts an AC voltage to a higher DC voltage. Invented by Heinrich Greinacher in 1919, they were used in the design of a particle accelerator that performed the first artificial nuclear disintegration, so you know they mean business.

Theoretically the output of the multiplier is an integer times the AC peak input voltage, and while they can work with any input voltage, the principal use for voltage multipliers is when very high voltages, in the order of tens of thousands or even millions of volts, are needed. They have the advantage of being relatively easy to build, and are cheaper than an equivalent high voltage transformer of the same output rating. If you need sparks for your mad science, perhaps a voltage multiplier can provide them for you.

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Negative Resistance: It Shouldn’t Make Sense!

When you leaf through a basic electronics textbook, you’ll find chapters describing in detail the operation of the various components. Resistors, capacitors, inductors, and semiconductors. The latter chapter will talk about P and N type regions, introduce us to the diode, and then deal with the transistor: its basic operation, how to bias it, and the like.

A tunnel diode amplifier circuit. Chetvorno [CC0]
Particularly if your textbook is a little older, you may find a short section talking about the tunnel diode. There will be an odd-looking circuit that seems to make no sense at all, an amplifier formed from just a forward-biased diode and a couple of resistors. This logic-defying circuit you are told works due to the tunnel diode being of a class of devices having a negative resistance, though in the absence of readily available devices for experimentation it can be difficult to wrap your head around.

We’re all used to conventional resistors, devices that follow Ohm’s Law. When you apply a voltage to a resistor, a current flows through it, and when the voltage is increased, so does the current. Thus if you use a positive resistance device, say a normal resistor, in both the top and the bottom halves of a potential divider, varying the voltage fed into the top of the divider results in the resistor behaving as you’d expect, and the voltage across it increases.

In a negative resistance device the opposite is the case: increasing the voltage across it results in decreasing current flowing through it. When a large enough negative resistance device is used in the lower half of a resistive divider, it reduces the overall current flowing through the divider when the input voltage increases. With less current flowing across the top resistor, more voltage is present at the output. This makes the negative resistor divider into an amplifier.

The tunnel diodes we mentioned above are probably the best known devices that exhibit negative resistance, and there was a time in the early 1960s before transistors gained extra performance that they seemed to represent the future in electronics. But they aren’t the only devices with a negative resistance curve, indeed aside from other semiconductors such as Gunn diodes you can find negative resistance in some surprising places. Electrical arcs, for example, or fluorescent lighting tubes.

A typical negative resistance I-V curve. Chetvorno [CC0]
The negative resistance property of electric arcs in particular produced a fascinating device from the early twentieth century. The first radio transmitters used an electric arc to generate their RF, but were extremely inefficient and wideband, causing interference. A refinement treated the spark not as the source of the RF but as the negative resistance element alongside a tuned circuit in an oscillator, These devices could generate single frequencies at extremely high power, and thus became popular as high-powered transmitters alongside those using high-frequency alternators until the advent of higher powered tube-based transmitters around the First World War.

It’s unlikely that you will encounter a tunnel diode or other similar electronic component outside the realm of very specialist surplus parts suppliers. We’ve featured them only rarely, and then they are usually surplus devices from the 1960s. But understanding something of how they operate in a circuit should be part of the general knowledge of anyone with an interest in electronics, and is thus worth taking a moment to look at.

1N3716 tunnel diode header image: Caliston [Public domain].

How To Use a Photo Tachometer

If you’re into anything even vaguely mechanical on the broad hacking spectrum, you’ve come into contact with things that spin. Sometimes, it’s important to know precisely how fast they are spinning! When you’ve got the need to know angular speed, you need a device to measure it. That device is a tachometer. And the most useful tachometer is the non-contact photo-tachometer.

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Are You Down With MPPT? (Yeah, You Know Me.)

Solar cells have gotten cheaper and cheaper, and are becoming an economically viable source of renewable energy in many parts of the world. Capturing the optimal amount of energy from a solar panel is a tricky business, however. First there are a raft of physical prerequisites to operating efficiently: the panel needs to be kept clean so the sun can reach the cells, the panel needs to point at the sun, and it’s best if they’re kept from getting too hot.

Along with these physical demands, solar panels are electrically finicky as well. In particular, the amount of power they produce is strongly dependent on the electrical load that they’re presented, and this optimal load varies depending on how much illumination the panel receives. Maximum power-point trackers (MPPT) ideally keep the panel electrically in the zone even as little fluffy clouds roam the skies or the sun sinks in the west. Using MPPT can pull 20-30% more power out of a given cell, and the techniques are eminently hacker-friendly. If you’ve never played around with solar panels before, you should. Read on to see how!

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