Make Your Own Simple VHF Tuning Capacitor

If you enjoy building radio projects you may have noticed something slightly worrying over the last few years in your component supply. Variable capacitors are no longer as plentiful as they used to be. There was a time when all radio receivers contained at least one, now with the advent of the varicap diode and the frequency synthesiser the traditional tuning capacitor is a rare breed. They are still made, but they’re not cheap and they won’t appear so readily in your junk box any more.

Fortunately a variable capacitor is a surprisingly simple device, and one you can make yourself if you are of a mind to do so. [Patrick] did just that with his home-made capacitor, in this case of a few tens of pF and suitable as a low-power trimmer capacitor or in a single-chip FM radio.

Rather than make a set of interlocking vanes as you’d find in a commercial design, he has gone for a screw in a tube. The capacitance is set by the length by which the screw is inserted into the tube. And his tube is not a tube in the traditional sense, instead he has used a coil of enamelled copper wire wound on the screw thread, whose insulation forms the dielectric. It looks wrong to use a coil in this way as you’d expect a similar coil to form the inductive part of a tuned circuit, but this coil is shorted out to prevent its inductance becoming a factor at the frequency in question.

It’s evidently not the answer to all variable capacitor problems, but it’s a neat piece of lateral thinking and it will make a simple working capacitor from readily available parts.

We’ve featured a couple of more traditional style home-made variable capacitors in the past on these pages, one made from thin aluminium sheet cut with scissors, and another one designed for use in higher power transmitters.

Thanks [PeterF] for the tip.

Build a Tiny (Unstable) Bugging Device

We don’t know who the [amgworkshop] wanted to listen in on, but they apparently went searching for a small FM wireless transmitter. There’s plenty of circuits around, but they wanted something smaller. The original circuit had a variable capacitor to tune the output frequency. The new design uses a fixed capacitor and a spring for an antenna. You can see the build steps in the video below, but don’t expect a lot of frequency stability or fidelity out of a single transistor transmitter.

The parts list is minimal. In addition to a coin cell holder (which serves as the construction base), you need a transistor, two resistors, three capacitors, a homemade inductor (very easy to make with some wire and a drill bit), and an electret microphone. Of course, you need a battery, too. The whole thing is potted with hot glue.

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Bombing The Sky For The Sake Of Radio

If you are familiar with radio propagation you’ll know that radio waves do not naturally bend around the earth. Like light and indeed all electromagnetic radiation if they are given a free space they will travel in a straight line.

At very high frequencies this means that in normal circumstances once a receiver moves over the horizon from a transmitter that’s it, you’re out of range and there can be no communication. But at lower frequencies this is not the case. As you move through the lower end of the VHF into the HF (Short Wave) portion of the spectrum and below, the radio signal routinely travels far further than the horizon, and at the lower HF frequencies it starts to reach other continents, even as far as the other side of the world.

Of course, we haven’t changed the Laws Of Physics. Mr. Scott’s famous maxim still stands. Radio waves at these frequencies are being reflected, from ionised portions of the atmosphere and from the ground, sometimes in multiple “hops”. The science of this mechanism has been the subject of over a hundred years of exploration and will no doubt be for hundreds more, for the atmosphere is an unreliable boiling soup of gasses rather than a predictable mirror for your radio waves.

Radio amateurs have turned pushing the atmosphere to its limits into a fine art, but what if you would prefer to be able to rely on it? The US military has an interest in reliable HF communications as well as in evening out the effects of solar wind on the ionisation of the atmosphere, and has announced a research program involving bombing the upper atmosphere with plasma launched from cubesats. Metal ions will be created from both chemical reactions and by small explosions, and their results on the atmosphere will be studied.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the upper atmosphere has been ionised in military experiments. Both the USA and the USSR exploded nuclear weapons  at these altitudes before the cessation of atmospheric nuclear testing, and more recently have directed high power radio waves with the aim of ionising the upper atmosphere. You may have heard of the USA’s HAARP project in Alaska, but Russia’s Sura Ionospheric Heating Facility near Nizhniy Novgorod has been used for similar work. It remains to be seen whether these latest experiments will meet with success, but we’re sure they won’t be the last of their kind.

We’ve looked at radio propagation in the past with this handy primer, and we’ve also featured a military use of atmospheric reflection with over-the-horizon radar.

Fishbowl Starfish Prime upper atmosphere nuclear test image via Los Alamos National Laboratory. As an image created by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of their official duties this image is in the public domain.

Police Baffled? Send For The Radio Amateurs!

The police force in Evanston, Illinois had a problem on their hands. A mystery transmitter was blocking legal use of radio devices, car key fobs, cellphones, and other transmitters in an area of their city, and since it was also blocking 911 calls they decided to investigate it. Their first call for help went to the FCC who weren’t much use, telling them to talk to the manufacturers of the devices affected.

Eventually they approached the ARRL, the USA’s national amateur radio organisation, who sent along [Kermit Carlson, W9XA] to investigate. He fairly quickly identified the frequencies with the strongest interference and the likely spot from which it originated, and after some investigation it was traced to a recently replaced neon sign power supply. Surprisingly the supply was not replaced with a fault-free unit, its owner merely agreeing to turn it off should any further interference be reported.

The ARRL are highlighting this otherwise fairly unremarkable case to draw attention to the problem of devices appearing on the market with little or no pretence of electromagnetic compatibility compliance. In particular they are critical of the FCC’s lacklustre enforcement response in cases like this one. It’s a significant problem worldwide as huge numbers of very cheap switch-mode mains power supplies have replaced transformers in mains power applications, and in any center of population its effects can be readily seen with an HF radio in the form of a significantly raised RF noise floor. Though we have reported before on the FCC’s investigation of the noise floor problem we’d be inclined to agree with the ARRL that it is effective enforcement of EMC regulations that is key to the solution.

City of Evanston police vehicle picture, [Inventorchris] (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr.

Fine Business, Good Buddy: Amateur Radio for Truckers

Summer is the season for family road trips here in the US, and my family took to the open road in a big way this year. We pulled off a cross-country relocation, from Connecticut to Idaho. Five days on the road means a lot of pit stops, and we got to see a lot of truck stops and consequently, a lot of long-haul truckers. I got to thinking about their unique lifestyle and tried to imagine myself doing that job. I wondered what I’d do hour after long hour, alone in the cab of my truck. I figured that I’d probably just end up listening to a lot of audio books, but then I realized that there’s a perfect hobby for the road — ham radio. So I decided to see how ham radio is used by truckers, and mull over how a truck driver version of me might practice The World’s Best Hobby.

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HF-Powered Drone Antenna

Amateur radio has a couple of sweet allocations in the VHF bands, but because the signals don’t reflect off the ionosphere like shortwave signals, the use is limited basically to line-of-sight. One workaround is to use a repeater with a tall antenna, but that requires a lot of infrastructure or a mountainside lair.


What if you could just fly your antenna up in a drone? Well, for starters, you’d run out of batteries pretty quickly unless you could power it remotely. And if you try to tether it, the supply wires end up being too heavy to lift. Or do they?!?!

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A VNA On A 200 Euro Budget

If you were to ask someone who works with RF a lot and isn’t lucky enough to do it for a commercial entity with deep pockets what their test instrument of desire would be, the chances are their response would mention a vector network analyser. A VNA is an instrument that measures the S-parameters of an RF circuit, that rather useful set of things to know whose maths in those lectures as an electronic engineering student are something of a painful memory for some of us.

The reason your RF engineer respondent won’t have a VNA on their bench already will be fairly straightforward. VNAs are eye-wateringly expensive. Second-hand ones are in the multi-thousands, new ones can require the keys to Fort Knox. All this is no obstacle to [Henrik Forstén] though, he’s built himself a 30MHz to 6 GHz VNA on the cheap, with the astoundingly low budget of 200 Euros.

The operation of a VNA
The operation of a VNA

On paper, the operation of a VNA is surprisingly simple. RF at a known power level is passed through the device under test into a load, and the forward and reverse RF is sampled on both its input and output with a set of directional couplers. Each of the four couplers feeds what amounts to an SDR, and the resulting samples are processed by a computer. His write-up contains a full run-down of each section of the circuit, and is an interesting primer on the operation of a VNA,

[Henrik] admits that his VNA isn’t as accurate an instrument as its commercial cousins, but for his tiny budget the quality of his work is evident in that it is a functional VNA. He could have a batch of these assembled and he’d find a willing queue of buyers even after taking into account the work he’s put in with his pricing.

[Henrik]’s work has appeared on these pages several times before, and every time he has delivered something special. We’ve seen his radar systems, home-made horn antennas, and a very well-executed ARM single board computer. This guy is one to watch.

Thanks [theEngineer] for the tip.