Build Your Own EMI Probes

[Gerald Musy] wanted to investigate the source of electromagnetic interference (EMI) in his switching power supply design. Stymied by the high cost of EMI probes, he decided to build his own. Lucky for us, he wrote up his results of experimenting with four different designs.

The probes include an unshielded loop, a shielded loop, a ferrite core probe, and an electric field probe. None of these are especially complex to build–the ferrite core one is probably the most involved–you can see from the scope traces that the different probes pick up different information.

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Scrap Bin Mods Move Science Forward

A first-time visitor to any bio or chem lab will have many wonders to behold, but few as captivating as the magnetic stirrer. A motor turns a magnet which in turn spins a Teflon-coated stir bar inside the beaker that sits on top. It’s brilliantly simple and so incredibly useful that it leaves one wondering why they’re not included as standard equipment in every kitchen range.

But as ubiquitous as magnetic stirrers are in the lab, they generally come in largish packages. [BantamBasher135] needed a much smaller stir plate to fit inside a spectrophotometer. With zero budget, he retrofitted the instrument with an e-waste, Arduino-controlled magnetic stirrer.

The footprint available for the modification was exceedingly small — a 1 cm square cuvette with a flea-sized micro stir bar. His first stab at the micro-stirrer used a tiny 5-volt laptop fan with the blades cut off and a magnet glued to the hub, but that proved problematic. Later improvements included beefing up the voltage feeding the fan and coming up with a non-standard PWM scheme to turn the motor slow enough to prevent decoupling the stir bar from the magnets.

[BantamBasher135] admits that it’s an ugly solution, but one does what one can to get the science done. While this is a bit specialized, we’ve featured plenty of DIY lab instruments here before. You can make your own peristaltic pump or even a spectrophotometer — with or without the stirrer.

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There are many ways to divide the hacker community into groups. Tubes vs transistors. Emacs vs VI, microcontroller vs discrete component designers. However, one of the more fundamental divisions in the community is how you organize your parts. We’ve seen giant warehouses with carefully organized bins and cabinets full of components, and we’ve seen storage crates with tangles of wires and bits of electron-bending components scattered among the wires.

dbIf you are in the former camp, you’d probably enjoy (see image, right). If you are in the latter group, you probably need to check it out even more than the other people. The idea is simple: an online place to keep an inventory of your electronic parts. The implementation is not as simple, though. The web application will work on a mobile device or just about anywhere. You can view your components by type, by location (the shoe box under the bed vs the parts bin in the closet), or by a project’s bill of materials. You can use “known” parts or create private parts for things no one else has (for example, your custom PC boards, or those 3D printed brackets you made to hold a microswitch). If you add data for a component you can make it available to other users.

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A DIY Vacuum Pickup Tool for $75

If you’re assembling prototypes of SMD boards on your own, placing the parts accurately can be a pain. Of course, it’d be nice to have a full pick and place machine, but those are rather expensive and time consuming to set up, especially for a small run of boards. Instead, a vacuum pickup tool can help you place the parts quickly and accurately by hand.

The folks over at Ohmnilabs have put together their own DIY pickup tool for about $75, and it’s become part of their in-house prototyping process. They grew tired of placing components with tweezers, which require you to remove parts from the tape before lifting them, and have a tendency to flip parts over at the worst time.

The build consists of a couple parts that can be bought from Amazon. An electric vacuum pump does the sucking, and the vacuum level is regulated with an adjustable buck converter. A solid foot switch keeps your hands free, and syringe tips are used to pick the parts up.

This looks like a simple afternoon build, but if you’re prototyping, it could save you tons of time. To see it in action, check out the video after the break.

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Smartphone Bench Instrument Apps: Disappointment or Delight?

If you are interested in electronics or engineering, you’ll have noticed a host of useful-sounding apps to help you in your design and build work. There are calculators, design aids, and somewhat intriguingly, apps that claim to offer an entire instrument on your phone. A few of them are produced to support external third-party USB instrument peripherals, but most of them claim to offer the functionality using just the hardware within the phone. Why buy an expensive oscilloscope, spectrum analyzer, or signal generator, when you can simply download one for free?

Those who celebrate Christmas somewhere with a British tradition are familiar with Christmas crackers and the oft-disappointing novelties they contain. Non-Brits are no doubt lost at this point… the crackers in question are a cardboard tube wrapped in shiny paper drawn tight over each end of it. The idea is that two people pull on the ends of the paper, and when it comes apart out drops a toy or novelty. It’s something like the prize in a Cracker Jack Box.

Engineering-oriented apps follow this cycle of hope and disappointment. But there are occasional exceptions. Let’s tour some of the good and the bad together, shall we?

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Characterizing A Cheap 500MHz Counter Module

An exciting development over the last few years has been the arrival of extremely cheap instrumentation modules easily bought online and usually shipped from China. Some of them have extremely impressive paper specifications for their price, and it was one of these that caught the eye of [Carol Milazzo, KP4MD]. A frequency counter for under $14 on your favourite online retailer, and with a claimed range of 500 MHz. That could be a useful instrument in its own right, and with a range that significantly exceeds the capabilities of much more expensive bench test equipment from not so long ago.

Just how good is it though, does it live up to the promise? [Carol] presents the measurements she took from the device, so you can see for yourselves. She took look at sensitivity, VSWR, and input impedance over a wide range, after first checking its calibration against a GPS-disciplined standard and making a fine adjustment with its on-board trimmer.

In sensitivity terms it’s a bit deaf, requiring 0.11 Vrms for a lock at 10 MHz. Meanwhile its input impedance decreases from 600 ohms at the bottom of its range to 80 ohms at 200 MHz, with a corresponding shift in VSWR. So it’s never going to match a high-end bench instrument from which you’d expect much more sensitivity and a more stable impedance, but for the price we’re sure that’s something you can all work around. Meanwhile it’s worth noting from the pictures she’s posted that the board has unpopulated space for an SPI interface header, which leaves the potential for it to be used as a logging instrument.

We think it’s worth having as much information as possible about components like this one, both in terms of knowing about new entrants to the market and in knowing their true performance. So if you were curious about those cheap frequency counter modules, now thanks to [Carol] you have some idea of what they can do.

While it’s convenient to buy a counter module like this one, of course there is nothing to stop you building your own. We’ve featured many over the years, this 100MHz one using a 74-series prescaler or this ATtiny offering for example, or how about this very accomplished one with an Android UI?

How to Control Your Instruments From A Computer: It’s Easier Than You Think

There was a time when instruments sporting a GPIB connector (General Purpose Interface Bus) for computer control on their back panels were expensive and exotic devices, unlikely to be found on the bench of a hardware hacker. Your employer or university would have had them, but you’d have been more likely to own an all-analogue bench that would have been familiar to your parents’ generation.

A GPIB/IEEE488 plug. Alkamid [CC BY-SA 3.], via Wikimedia Commons
A GPIB/IEEE488 plug. Alkamid [CC BY-SA 3.], via Wikimedia Commons.
The affordable instruments in front of you today may not have a physical GPIB port, but the chances are they will have a USB port or even Ethernet over which you can exert the same control. The manufacturer will provide some software to allow you to use it, but if it doesn’t cost anything you’ll be lucky if it is either any good, or available for a platform other than Microsoft Windows.

So there you are, with an instrument that speaks a fully documented protocol through a physical interface you have plenty of spare sockets for, but if you’re a Linux user and especially if you don’t have an x86 processor, you’re a bit out of luck on the software front. Surely there must be a way to make your computer talk to it!

Let’s give it a try — I’ll be using a Linux machine and a popular brand of oscilloscope but the technique is widely applicable.

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