Diodes: The Switch You Never Knew You Had

Vishay's take on the 1N4148 data sheet (PDF), describing it as a switching diode.
Vishay’s take on the 1N4148 data sheet (PDF), describing it as a switching diode.

When looking across the discrete components in your electronic armory, it is easy to overlook the humble diode. After all, one can be forgiven for the conclusion that the everyday version of this component doesn’t do much. They have none of the special skills you’d find in tunnel, Gunn, varicap, Zener, and avalanche diodes, or even LEDs, instead they are simply a one-way valve for electrical current. Connect them one way round and current flows, the other and it doesn’t. They rectify AC to DC, power supplies are full of them. Perhaps you’ve also used them to generate a stable voltage drop because they have a pretty constant voltage across them when current is flowing, but that’s it. Diodes: the shortest Hackaday article ever.

Not so fast with dismissing the diode though. There is another trick they have hiding up their sleeves, they can also act as a switch. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, after all a quick look at many datasheets for general purpose diodes should reveal their description as switching diodes.

So how does a diode switch work? The key lies in that one-way valve we mentioned earlier. When the diode is forward biased and conducting electricity it will pass through any variations in the voltage being put into them, but when it is reverse biased and not conducting any electricity it will not. Thus a signal can be switched on by passing it through a diode in forward bias, and then turned off by putting the diode into reverse bias.

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You Can Have My LM386s When You Pry Them From My Cold Dead Hands

Everyone has a chip-of-shame: it’s the part that you know is suboptimal but you keep using it anyway because it just works well enough. Maybe it’s not what you would put into a design that you’re building more than a couple of, but for a quick and dirty lashup, it’s just the ticket. For Hackaday’s [Adam Fabio], that chip is the TIP120 transistor. Truth be told, we have more than one chip of shame, but for audio amplification purposes, it’s the LM386.

The LM386 is an old design, and requires a few supporting passive components to get its best performance, but it’s fundamentally solid. It’s not noise-free and doesn’t run on 3.3 V, but if you can fit a 9 V battery into your project and you need to push a moderate amount of sound out of a speaker, we’ll show you how to get the job done with an LM386.

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Taking It To Another Level: Making 3.3V Speak with 5V

If your introduction to digital electronics came more years ago than you’d care to mention, the chances are you did so with 5V TTL logic. Above 2V but usually pretty close to 5V is a logic 1, below 0.8V is a logic 0. If you were a keen reader of electronic text books you might have read about different voltage levels tolerated by 4000 series CMOS gates, but the chances are even with them you’d have still used the familiar 5 volts.

This happy state of never encountering anything but 5V logic as a hobbyist has not persisted. In recent decades the demands of higher speed and lower power have given us successive families of lower voltage devices, and we will now commonly also encounter 3.3V or even sometimes lower voltage devices. When these different families need to coexist as for example when interfacing to the current crop of microcontroller boards, care has to be taken to avoid damage to your silicon. Some means of managing the transition between voltages is required, so we’re going to take a look at the world of level shifters, the circuits we use when interfacing these different voltage logic families.

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The Zero Ohm Resistor

What’s your favorite value of resistor? 1K? 10K? They’re all fine, but when you need nearly no resistance at all, nothing beats the good old zero-ohm resistor.

Wait a minute! Resistors are supposed to resist current. What the heck does a zero-ohm resistor do? Well, the short story (tee-hee!) is that it’s like a jumper for single-sided surface-mount boards. In the bad old days, companies used to save money by running single-sided boards, and you could buy wire jumpers to help make the layout that much easier.

Fast forward to the modern era, where there’s not a through-hole component to be seen. What’s the resistance (ideally) of a wire? Zero ohms. And thus the zero-ohm resistor was born. We have a whole spool of them in our closet in 1206, the largest SMD size that we use, in order to be able to sneak two or three tracks underneath, even on a home-etched board. They’re great.

Anyway, what set us off rhapsodizing about the lowest value resistor was this article on the peculiarities of the zero ohm resistor. Of course, nothing has zero resistance, and the article walks you through some of their real-world properties. Enjoy!

Get To Know Voltage Regulators with a 723

“Chapter 5; Horowitz and Hill”. University students of all subjects will each have their standard texts of which everyone will own a copy. It will be so familiar to them as to be referred to by its author as a shorthand, and depending on the subject and the tome in question it will be either universally loathed or held onto and treasured as a lifetime work of reference.

For electronic engineers the work that most exemplifies this is [Paul Horowitz] and [Winfield Hill]’s The Art Of Electronics. It definitely falls into the latter category of course books, being both a mine of information and presented in an extremely accessible style. It’s now available in its third edition, but the copy in front of me is a first edition printed some time in the mid 1980s.

The Art of Electronics, on regulators.
The Art of Electronics, on regulators.

Chapter 5 probably made most of an impression on the late-teenage me, because it explains voltage regulation and power supplies both linear and switching. Though there is nothing spectacularly challenging about a power supply from the perspective of experience, having them explained as a nineteen-year-old by a book that made sense because it told you all the stuff you needed to know rather than just what a school exam syllabus demanded you should know was a revelation.

On the first page of my Art of Electronics chapter 5, they dive straight in to the μA723 linear voltage regulator. This is pretty old; a design from the legendary [Bob Widlar], master of analogue integrated circuits, which first made it to market in 1967. [Horowitz] and [Hill] say “Although you might not choose it for a new design nowadays, it is worth looking at in some detail, since more recent regulators work on the same principles“. It was 13 years old when they wrote that sentence and now it is nearly 50 years old, yet judging by the fact that Texas Instruments still lists it as an active product without any of those ominous warnings about end-of-life it seems plenty of designers have not heeded those words.

So why is a 50-year-old regulator chip still an active product? There is a huge range of better regulators, probably cheaper and more efficient regulators that make its 14-pin DIP seem very dated indeed. The answer is that it’s an incredibly useful part because it does not present you with a regulator as such, instead it’s a kit of all the parts required to make a regulator of almost any description. Thus it is both an astonishingly versatile device for a designer and the ideal platform for anyone wanting to learn about or experiment with a regulator.
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Not Quite 101 Uses For An ATX Power Supply

The PC power supply has been a standard of the junk box for the last couple of decades, and will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future. A product that is often built to a very high standard and which will give years of faithful service, yet which has a life of only a few years as the PC of which it is a part becomes obsolete. Over the decades it has evolved from the original PC and AT into ATX, supplying an ever-expanding range of voltage rails at increasing power levels. There have been multiple different revisions of the ATX power supply standard over the years, but they all share the same basic form factor.

So a pile of ATX supplies will probably feature in the lives of quite a few readers. Most of them will probably be old and obsolete versions of little use with today’s motherboards, so there they sit. Not small enough to ignore, yet Too Good To Throw Away. We’re going to take a look at them, try to work out what useful parts they contain, and see a few projects using them. Maybe this will provide some inspiration if you’re one of those readers with a pile of them seeking a purpose.

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Parts You Should know: A Universe Of Useful Injection Molded Standoffs

Your clever branding won't work on me! *types caption in on iPhone*
Your clever branding won’t work on me!
*types caption in on iPhone, sips Starbucks*

I remember the first time I built a computer. My sister and I had our last fight about who would get to use the family computer, it was time I had one of my own. I knew a little bit, and I knew I wasn’t going to be one of those plebs that overpaid for a Gateway in its cow box. So I outsourced. One of the computer literate parents in my Scout Troop very kindly agreed to put together a list of components for me. I spent my Christmas money, birthday money, and a small mountain of money I had saved up. I remember getting the parts in the mail. I was so excited that a week earlier I had even bought one of those super lame computer tool kits to put it together.

I still remember how enormously frustrating the stand-offs for the mother board were to install. I think computers were still figuring out that they didn’t need ALL of the features of a mainframe. Anyway there was a 3mm screw on each side of a cm tall brass standoff. It also wanted me to put these little isolating paper washers on the assembly for some reason. Even with my then presidentially sized hands it took a long time. My Mom later told me that it was around this time she was certain the whole endeavour was going to end in tears.

Six hours of careful work later I had the computer together and running when I realized I had forgotten to buy an OS for it. She was nearly right.

Regardless. My early experience with computer assembly left me with a love for standardized screws, a hate for excessive fasteners, and a deep loathing for improperly routed wires. I was a weird kid. Anyway, when it came time for me to start designing my own enclosures for circuit boards I had all the unique psychological damage and underpinnings I would need to waste a lot of time googling on the internet for an alternate, screwless, method of standing a board off from a surface.

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