A Ridiculous Way to Light an LED: Candle-power

If you have ever entertained yourself by reading comprehensive electronic-theory textbooks you’ll have seen references to technologies that sound really interesting but which you will rarely hold in your hand. They may be dead-ends that have been superseded by more recent innovations, or they may be technologies that have found uses but in other fields from those in which they originally showed promise. What if you could take these crazy parts and actually build something?

[Fedetft] has an interesting project that combines two of those intriguing textbook references, he’s created a thermopile that lights an LED through an inverter whose oscillator is a tunnel diode. Dig out the textbook.

If you’ve used a thermocouple thermometer or a semiconductor thermoelectric generator then you’ll have encountered the thermoelectric effect. Perhaps you’ve even operated a Peltier cooling element in this mode. When a circuit is made with two junctions between different types of conductor with a temperature difference between the two junctions, a current will flow in the circuit which is dependent on both the scale of the temperature difference and the properties of the conductors.

A thermopile is a collection of these thermoelectric junction circuits between metal conductors, arranged in series to increase the voltage. [Fedetft]’s thermopile uses chromel and alumel wires taken from a K-type thermocouple. He’s made six sets of junctions, and supported them with small pieces of mica sheet. Using the heat from a candle he found he could generate about 200mV with it, at about 3.7mW.

The RCA tunnel diode inverter circuit
The RCA tunnel diode inverter circuit

Such a tiny source of electricity would be of little use to light an LED directly, so he needed to build an inverter. And that’s where the tunnel diode comes in. Tunnel diodes have a negative-resistance region that can be used to amplify and oscillate at extremely high frequencies in extremely simple circuits, yet they’re not exactly a device you’d encounter very often in 2016. [Fedetft] has a Russian tunnel diode, and he’s used it with a toroidal transformer in an inverter circuit he found in an RCA tunnel diode manual from 1963. It’s a two-component Joule Thief. The RCA manual is a good read in itself for those curious about tunnel diodes.

The resulting circuit produces a 15kHz oscillation with 4.5v peaks, and has just enough power to light an LED.

While it might seem pointless to barely light an LED from a brightly lit candle, the important part of [Fedetft]’s project is to gain some understanding of two of those technological backwaters from the textbooks. And we applaud that.

It’s the mark of a truly esoteric technology that it features rarely on Hackaday, and neither of these two disappoint. We’ve only mentioned tunnel diode in passing when looking at diodes in general, and we’ve tended to use “thermopile” in another sense to refer to thermal imaging cameras.

Standard Resistor Teardowns

What do you do, when you want an ohm? What is an ohm, for that matter? Take a wander over to the textbook definitions, and you’re soon deep in a world of coulombs and parallel infinite planes one meter apart in a vacuum that you probably only half remember from your high school physics class. It’s hard work, this metrology lark.

Of course, you can just order a resistor. A few cents each when you’re buying small quantities or much less when you’re buying a reel of five thousand, and there you have it. An ohm. Only it’s not really an ohm, more like nearly an ohm. Within 1% of an ohm is pretty good, but Vishay or Bourns or whoever don’t have the margins to get philosophical about those infinite planes when you’re only giving them a few cents.

When you REALLY want an ohm, you buy a standard resistor, and you pay a more significant sum. You’re never going to wire one of these up to bias a transistor or drive an LED, instead it’s about as close as it’s possible to get on your bench to the value it says on the box and you can use it for calibration purposes. PPM figures well in excess of the resolution of even superior DMMs sound pretty good to us!

[Zlymex] was curious about standard resistors, so performed a teardown of a few to see what they contain. And after a pithy explanation of the terms involved he’s managed to look inside quite a few of them.

Inside he finds hermetically sealed wire-wound resistors, some oil-filled wire-wound resistors, and the occasional hefty piece of manganin. He also tears down some of the hermetically sealed resistors themselves, finding both wire-wound and foil resistance elements within.

It is a curious obsession that permeates hacker culture, that of standard measurements, and it’s one we’ve covered quite a few times here. Time enthusiasts with atomic clocks like this rather beautiful discrete logic build, or voltage enthusiasts with their temperature compensated references or programmable standards. Surprisingly though, this appears to be the first time we’ve looked at standard resistors.

Thanks [David Gustafik] for the tip.

Bench Testing a Switch Mode Drop In Replacement For the LM7805

Throwing a 5V regulator like the LM7805 at our projects can become habit forming, after all they’re dirt cheap and the circuit is about as basic as they come with only two external components, an input and output cap. As this is a good enough solution to most of our 5V circuits we can come into some issues if we aren’t paying attention. Linear regulators can only dissipate so much power in the form of heat before they need a heat sink and/or active cooling. Even if they can produce a cleaner output, in an embedded system, large power losses to heat are less than ideal to say the least.

[Daniel] needed an efficient solution to use in the place of an LM7805, after looking at the drop-in replacement switching solutions available on Adafruit’s website, he headed to DigiKey for a similar and less expensive part. [Daniel] collected some data and found the regulator to be 92% efficient with a 12V input, which is not quite the claimed 97% but a good solution nonetheless.

Switching voltage regulators are nothing new, so don’t even act like we just jumped on this switch-mode bandwagon! But it pays to give a little thought to your power supply. And while you’re in the mood, have an extremely thorough look inside the LM7805.

Which SD Card to Use in a Pi?

There is surprising variation in the performance of SD cards. They are not all created equal and the differences can impact the running of your Raspberry Pi, no matter which model. [Jeff Geerling] wondered exactly how different cards would affect system performance. He ran a number of tests on cards ranging from cheap no-names to well-known brand names. The no-name cards fared pretty badly but even among the brand names there is considerable variation.

microsd-cards-all-tested-raspberry-pi

[Matt] over at Raspberry Pi Spy also tested SD cards and found similar differences. Both tested microSD cards. [Jeff’s] tests were solely on the Pi while [Matt’s] were on Windows 7, Ubuntu, and a Pi.

The discussions in the blog about what to measure were as interesting as the actual results. That lead to determining which software tools to use for the measurement. For example, a system doing a lot of small database reads and writes might work better with one SD card while a system storing and then streaming videos might work better with another card. Another interesting result is that the Pi’s data bus greatly limits the access speeds. [Jeff] measured much higher speeds running the same tests using a Mac with a USB dongle. The cards are capable of much more than the Pi can deliver.

[Matt] also checked the capacity of the SD cards. There are a lot of fakes floating around marked with higher capacities than they actually support. Even getting a brand name card may not help since some are counterfeit. So beware: if the price it too good to be true, it very well may be.

More ESP32 Info Dribbles Out

In case you’ve been hiding under a virtual rock over the last two years, you might have missed it when Espressif turned the IoT game on its head by releasing a chip with WiFi and a decent embedded processor for under $1 in bulk, and costing not much more than that in a module.

They’re looking to repeat the success of the ESP8266 with the ESP32, that should be coming out any time now. As we get closer to the release date, details start to dribble out. [Alberto], who makes very nice-looking pinout diagrams for a number of our favorite chips and modules, has already made us an ESP32 module pinout diagram.

And [Rudi] has been digging up nearly every crumb of info on the ESP32 that’s publicly available. For instance, it was through his website that we learned that the new RTOS SDK source is already up on GitHub.

There’s also a source of official information in the ESP32 forum, but there’s not much news there just yet. We expect this to change as more beta units make it out into the wild.

We covered the announcement of the forthcoming ESP32 last month, and we have to say that we’re looking forward to getting a module or two in our hands. Twin cores, BTLE support, and better DMA are tops on our list of neat features.

A Peek Under the Hood of the 741 Op-Amp

First introduced as an IC back in 1968, but with roots that go back to 1941, the 741 has been tweaked and optimized over the years and is arguably the canonical op-amp. [Ken Shirriff] decided to take a look inside everybody’s favorite op-amp, and ended up with some good-looking photomicrographs and a lot of background on the chip.

canRather than risk the boiling acid method commonly used to decap epoxy-potted ICs, [Ken] wisely chose a TO-99 can format to attack with a hacksaw. With the die laid bare for his microscope, he was able to locate all the major components and show how each is implemented in silicon. Particularly fascinating is the difference between the construction of NPN and PNP transistors, and the concept of “current mirrors” as constant current sources. And he even whipped up a handy interactive chip viewer – click on something in the die image and find out which component it is on the 741 schematic. Very nice.

We’ve seen lots of chip decappings before, including this reveal of TTL and CMOS logic chips. It’s nice to see the guts of the venerable 741 on display, though, and [Ken]’s tour is both a great primer for the newbie and a solid review for the older hands. Don’t miss the little slice of history he included at the end of the post.

I2C Bus Splitting with a more Professional Touch

Last week, I covered some of the bitter details of an interesting hack that lets us split up the I²C clock line into multiple outputs with a demultiplexer, effectively giving us “Chip Selects” for devices with the same address.

This week, I figured it’d be best to layout a slightly more practical method for solving the same problem of talking to I²C devices that each have the same address.

I actually had a great collection of comments mention the same family of chips I’m using to tackle this issue, and I’m glad that we’re jumping off the same lead as we explore the design space.

Recalling the Work of Our Predecessors

Before figuring out a clever way of hacking together our own solution, it’s best to see if someone before us has already gone through all of the trouble to solve that problem. In this case–we’re in luck–so much that the exact bus-splitting behavior we want is embedded into a discrete IC, known as the PCA9547.

chip_reverence

It’s worth remembering that our predecessors have labored tirelessly to create such a commodity piece of silicon.

The PCA9547 (PDF) is an octal, I²C bus multiplexer, and I daresay, it’s probably the most practical solution for this scenario. Not only does the chip provide 8 separate buses, up to seven more additional PCA9547s can be connected to enable communication with up to 64 identical devices! What’s more, the PCA9547 comes with the additional benefit of being compatible with both 3.3V and 5V logic-level devices on separate buses. Finally, as opposed to last week’s “hack,” each bus is bidirectional, which means the PCA9547 is fully compliant with the I²C spec.

Selecting one of the eight I²C buses is done via a transfer on the I²C bus itself. It’s worth mentioning that this method does introduce a small amount of latency compared to the previous clock-splitter solution from last week. Nevertheless, if you’re planning to read multiple devices sequentially from a single bus anyway, then getting as close-as-possible to a simultaneous read/write from each device isn’t likely a constraint on your system.

 

With a breakout board to expose the pads, I mocked up a quick-n-dirty Arduino Library to get the conversation started and duplicated last week’s demo.

Happily enough, with a single function to change the bus address, the PCA9547 is pretty much a drop-in solution that “just works.” It’s definitely reassuring that we can stand on the shoulders of our chip designers to get the job done quickly. (They’ve also likely done quite a bit more testing to ensure their device performs as promised.) Just like last week, feel free to check out the demo source code up on Github.

Until next time–cheers!